LA GONAVE, Haiti (Reuters) - On La Gonave, few people even know where Australia is. But it has become the talk of the Haitian island since Canberra signed a deal with the United States last month to swap refugees.
The U.S. and Australian governments agreed to exchange Cuban and Haitian refugees held at the U.S. naval base at Guantanamo in Cuba for refugees detained by Australia on the Pacific island of Nauru.
The deal only covers migrants who have been given official refugee status because they have a proven fear of persecution, and was aimed at deterring people-smuggling. Under the agreement, some refugees who had wanted to go to Australia could end up in the United States, and some who had hoped to reach Miami could end up in Sydney.
The pact could spur more Haitians to flee their impoverished and unstable Caribbean homeland in the misguided hope of being resettled in Australia, critics say, increasing the chance of disasters at sea like Friday’s, in the Turks and Caicos islands, when dozens of Haitians drowned after their sloop capsized.
An exodus may already be happening. The U.S. Coast Guard intercepted or rescued 704 Haitians trying to reach the United States by sea in April, compared to just five in March. That is almost as many in one month as the 769 Haitians the Coast Guard stopped at sea in all of 2006.
On La Gonave, only a few residents say they have a clue where Australia is located on a world map. But many have heard of the Australian-U.S. refugee deal.
“I don’t know where it is, but they told me Australia is a rich country,” said Virginie Saint-Clair, 28.
“I think if a Haitian like me gets there, life will be better,” said Saint-Clair declining to say whether she was ready to attempt the dangerous sea crossing to Florida.
Many of La Gonave’s 110,000 inhabitants have relatives in the United States or have tried to get there themselves over the past two decades.
“If I have the possibility I will take my chance,” said Jean Leonard, who lives in the La Gonave port of Anse-A-Galets. “We Haitians have the strength to work and we’ll make our way wherever on the earth there is life.”
Ti Lundi, 34, who called himself “Met lanme,” meaning “Master of the sea” in Creole, said he had tried to get to the United States before and would now try again.
“Maybe it is going to be my last try,” he said.
U.S. policy toward Haitian migrants has not changed despite the Australian deal. Few Haitians would likely be entitled to be recognized as official refugees fleeing persecution. The vast majority are simply looking to leave the hemisphere’s poorest country for a better life.
But Haiti’s Minister for Haitians Living Abroad Jean Geneus said that message wasn’t getting through.
“Those (people) smugglers who organize clandestine trips to the U.S. might be misleading people about this agreement,” Geneus told Reuters. “The population, which is not really aware of the situation, might be tricked.”
Human rights groups have criticized the U.S.-Australian refugee swap. New York-based Human Rights Watch said it amounted to bargaining human lives while Amnesty International said it feared families could end up being separated.
Haiti’s Fusion for the Social Democrats party regarded the measure as immoral, said spokesman Micha Gaillard.
“It is immoral because it is a lure and a trap for people who are led to believe there is a third country solution, when it is not the case,” Gaillard said.
U.S. embassy officials in Port-au-Prince were not available for comment.
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