Why the Australia-US Deal? Unwanted, Stranded Refugees

Men standing on top of building with signs adking for help
Men standing on top of building with signs adking for help
Asylum Seekers on Nauru, Picture from Aotearoa Independent Media Centre

By Alexandra Lancaster

Undocumented migrants who embark on the perilous journey by sea to Australia in search of asylum are taken to detention centers offshore on Manus Island in Papua New Guinea and on the Republic of Nauru (an impoverished island-country in the Pacific). There they are processed and there they stay. Australia is one of the few countries that allow people to be detained indefinitely. There are approximately 1200 refugees living in the now “open” detention centers, with more stranded in communities on these remote islands; most have been there for more than two years. Both islands are mostly inaccessible to the media and refugee advocates.

Many Australian politicians have characterized migrants who endeavor to reach Australian shores by boat as “queue jumpers” or “economic migrants.” This narrative has influenced the Australian public to support government policies focused on keeping those who arrive by boat out. The idea is these “queue jumpers” are cheating the processing system, and therefore should not be allowed to settle in Australia or even any other Western country. However, there is no orderly queue for resettlement.

In 2013, the Australia government increased navy patrols and towed boat immigrants to Pacific nation neighbors (sometimes without those neighbors’ permission). The Australian government has paid both Papua New Guinea and Nauru for their willingness to accommodate these asylum seekers and has also paid for offshore processing of maritime arrivals, more than 1 billion Australian dollars (or more than 800,000 US dollars) in fiscal year 2015-2016. The government has boasted about the success of its tough border policies, with no boat arrivals since 2014; it has also promised that it will never allow maritime arrivals into Australia. The Refugee Council of Australia has been very critical of this turn-back policy, arguing asylum seekers claims cannot be fairly assessed out at sea.

Conditions in the camps are terrible. In August 2016, a whistle-blower released 2000 documents called “the Nauru files.” Allegations of human rights abuses, sexual assault from security guards, children struggling with mental illness, and the prevalence of self-harm are depicted in thousands of documents.

The Supreme Court of Papua New Guinea found it unconstitutional to detain undocumented migrants seeking asylum on Manus Island. In April 2016, the Court demanded that the Australian government remove these migrants from the Manus detention centers; Australia has argued they are PNG’s responsibility. In August 2016, Australia and Papua New Guinea came to agreement on closing Manus detention, although no details or timeline were announced. For now, the men that are detained on Manus are free to move around the island (Manus now only has men; Nauru has men, women, and children).  United Nations officials and others have called for closure of facilities on both Manus and Nauru, along with resettlement of the asylum-seekers in Australia.

With this pressure, the Australian government has been forced to seek alternatives to offshore detention. In November 2016, Prime Minster Malcolm Turnbull announced that many people found to be refugees on Manus and Nauru would be offered asylum in the United States. So why would the Obama Administration agree to take refugees who are locked up in Australian immigration detention centers? Is this, in President Trump’s words, “a dumb deal”?

Both the United States and Australia have refugees for whom they have responsibility, but whom they are unwilling to place within their country due to the need to uphold a constant rhetoric of strong borders. Both governments have sought innovative solutions.

Details of the deal have been closely held, but it has been rumored that in return for US help with Australia’s offshore refugees, the Australian government would settle people from Honduras, Guatemala and El Salvador who have been held in a United States offshore processing center in Costa Rica. If true, this “refugee swap”  reflects the fact that the countries have adopted broadly similar border strategies and face similar challenges.  The deal allows them to maintain their tough border enforcement policies, while meeting international treaty obligations to provide refuge to those  held in detention centers determined to have refugee status. Although other “sweeteners” have been posited,  Australia announced in September 2016 (while the deal was being negotiated) that it would take refugees from Central America.

Obama made the agreement.  Both parties were able to get what they needed. US interviews of refugees began.

Now Trump has entered the picture.

President Trump’s recent immigration executive order, now under litigation, has created difficulties in implementing the Australian government’s plan. In addition to suspending the US refugee program for four months, it bans travelers from seven predominantly Muslim nations (Iran, Iraq, Libya, Somalia, Sudan, Syria and Yemen) for 90 days (with a possibility of extension). The majority of refugees on Manus are from Iran; several other refugees are from Iraq and Somalia. Most of the refugees are from Muslim countries.

Prime Minister Turnbull and President Trump talked right after the ban was announced. Turnbull announced the deal was still on; President Trump questioned it, and went on to tweet to the world his disappointment with his Australian alliance.  Australia’s once amicable relationship with the U.S has become rocky.

Once President Trump had tweeted about the “dumb deal,” it became clear he did not understand the agreement between Australia and the Obama administration. He accused Australia of wanting to send “illegal immigrants” to the United States. However, the agreement was for those recognized as legitimate refugees on Manus and Nauru, which the United States would vet.

In a grotesque dismissal of the refugees stranded on Manus and Nauru, President Trump also reportedly told the Australian Prime Minister that he feared these refugees would be the next “Boston Bombers” (the two brothers who placed bombs at the 2013 Boston Marathon, killing three and injuring many more).  With every Trump tweet and comment, hope of this deal coming to fruition fades.

If Trump continues with Obama’s agreement, he will be reneging on his campaign promise to keep out Muslims. However his Press Secretary Sean Spicer and Prime Minister Turnbull have both said that the deal will be honored, although The Guardian has suggested that this could be achieved through the United States vetting the refugees but finding them all unsuitable.

Originally from Sydney, Australia. Alexandra Lancaster is a researcher at Harvard University in the areas of human rights, immigration practices, and child protection.

2013 Photo from Aotearoa Independent Media Centre http://www.indymedia.org.nz/articles/848 under Creative Commons License https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0/