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Trading in refugees

By Azadeh Dastyari - posted Monday, 28 May 2007

The Minister for Immigration, Kevin Andrews recently announced that Australia has signed a Memorandum of Understanding (MOU) with the United States that will enable the two countries to “swap refugees”.

Under the MOU, Australia will be sending the United States up to 200 refugees annually who have been processed and are currently being detained on Nauru as part of Australia’s “pacific solution”. In return, the United States will be sending to Australia refugees processed and currently detained in Guantanamo Bay, Cuba.

For many years the United States Coast Guards have patrolled the high seas in search of people who may be attempting to come to the United States without permission. In 1991 George Bush I became the first US president to set up a detention centre in Guantanamo Bay for people who were intercepted on the high seas. Since that time the detention centre has been used to process some asylum seekers rather than giving them direct access to the US mainland.


The United States has used the threat of detention in Guantanamo Bay as a deterrent to would-be asylum seekers attempting to seek protection in the United States.

The detainees in Guantanamo Bay are treated very differently to asylum seekers who enter the United States mainland. For example, asylum seekers in Guantanamo Bay do not have a right of appeal on their refugee decision and many have been denied the right to legal assistance.

The conditions for asylum seekers in Guantanamo Bay are also reported to be appalling with little access to adequate health care. There have been many suicide attempts and hunger strikes by refugees and asylum seekers in Guantanamo Bay who have become overwhelmed with despair.

The United State’s processing of asylum seekers in Guantanamo Bay became a blueprint for Australia’s refugee policies in 2001. A few months before the 2001 Federal election, the MV Tampa, a Norwegian flagged container ship rescued 433 asylum seekers on the verge of drowning.

The Tampa requested permission to enter Australian territory. The Australian government refused permission and John Howard declared that the rescued asylum seekers would not set foot on Australian soil.

Inspired by the US practice of processing asylum seekers in another country, the Australian Government set up detention facilities in Papua New Guinea and Nauru for asylum seekers intercepted at sea and those who land in “excised territory”: that is territory the government declared not to be part of Australia.


Since 2001, more than 1,500 people had been detained and had their refugee claims assessed in Nauru and Papua New Guinea in detention centres paid for by Australia. The majority have been given refugee status and resettled in Australia. The detention centre in Papua New Guinea was mothballed in 2004. However, the detention centre in Nauru continues to operate as a detention facility and currently holds a group of Burmese and Sri Lankan asylum seekers.

The offshore processing of refugees by Australia has had similar problems to the United States. There have been hunger strikes and suicide attempts in the detention facilities on Nauru and Papua New Guinea. There has also been a death in the Nauru centre.

Australia’s offshore processing centres share another very important feature with their US counterparts: there is a common feeling of despair and hopelessness among the refugees and asylum seekers. People who have escaped persecution in the hope of finding safety and a new life are instead trapped in a strange half-way house, unsure of what future awaits them.

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About the Author

Azadeh Dastyari is an Assistant Lecturer in the Faculty of Law at Monash University and an Associate of the Castan Centre for Human Rights Law. She is a co-author (with Ben Saul and Mary Crock) of Future Seekers II: Refugees and Irregular Migration in Australia (Federation Press, 2006).

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