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Australia, US Agree to Swap Refugees

Australia and the United States have signed an unusual deal to swap illegal asylum seekers. The plan is for refugees held by the U.S. in Guantanamo Bay to be resettled in Australia, while Australia will send boat people from its detention centers on South Pacific islands to the United States. The aim is to deter people smuggling into the two countries. From Sydney, Phil Mercer reports.

The new exchange plan is aimed at people like the 83 Sri Lankans and eight Burmese being held in Australia's off-shore detention center on the Pacific island of Nauru.

All were picked up trying to sneak into Austalia by boat in recent months. Such refugees are routinely sent to off-shore processing centers in the South Pacific, with little hope of ever being allowed to settle here.

They could now be resettled in the United States. In return, the Americans will be allowed to send Cuban and Haitian asylum seekers held at Guantanamo Bay to Australia. The deal allows a maximum of 200 asylum seekers to be resettled in both countries each year.

Canberra and Washington hope to deter illegal migrants by stopping them from reaching their intended destinations. The thinking is, for example, that potential refugees from Cuba might think twice about trying to get to the United States, if there was chance they could end up in far away Australia instead.

Skeptics, however, say the plan could backfire. They say it might encourage even more refugees from Asia and the Middle East to try to sneak into Australia, in hopes of eventually reaching the United States.

Kerry Nettle of Australia's opposition Greens Party sees a purely political motive in the plan. He says Prime Minister John Howard's government is looking for a quick fix to the refugee issue ahead of an election due later this year.

"This is about political mates helping each other out," Nettle said. "Immigration issues in Australia and in the United States have been issues that conservative governments have sought to stand up on, and they're now helping each other out. It's nothing more than a political fix in the lead up to the election campaign."

The issue of illegal immigration is a potent one in Australian politics and many voters have traditionally supported Mr. Howard's uncompromising stance. Illegal immigration has also been a hot issue in the United States.

Mr. Howard says the agreement will reinforce his tough border protection policy.

Australia accepts about 13,000 legal refugees under official humanitarian programs every year.