Australia's stranded refugees

What’s really at stake in Trump’s “dumb deal” with Australia.

Recently President Trump called Australian Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull. This was expected to be a friendly call between allies – after all Australia sent troops to help the US in the Vietnam War, and participated in Bush’s war on terror. Turnbull, a conservative Prime Minister, has also taken decidedly anti-immigration and anti-refugee policies in his time in office. He has continued a ‘stop the boats’ policy, which prevents asylum seekers from legitimately entering Australian waters, and rather deports them to offshore detention centers in the Pacific: on Manus Island, Papua New Guinea, and the island republic of Nauru.  There are currently over 1,400 people in these two offshore detention centers, including 70 children.[1] There have been many instances of abuse by camp officers, regular acts of self-immolation and several suicides in the camps. Yet Turnbull has held strong on his policy. It all sounds like a good start for a conversation with Trump.

However, their phone call went terribly wrong, ending just 25 minutes into its scheduled hour. Trump called it a “tough phone call,” saying “we’re taken advantage of by every nation in the world, virtually.” You might be wondering: how is Australia taking advantage of the US? Trump was referring to an agreement signed by the Obama administration in September last year, promising to take in approximately 1,200 asylum seekers from Australia’s offshore camps. In exchange, Australia would take refugees from Central America (without increasing Australia’s overall refugee intake). This was agreed at a day-long Leaders’ Summit on Refugees, hosted by Obama. States could only attend if they pledged assistance to refugees.[2] The agreement was part of a broader attempt by the US, and the UN, to resolve the world’s refugee crisis. The vast majority of refugees are held in difficult conditions in the Global South. 

Trump however, was not pleased. He tweeted: “Do you believe it? The Obama Administration agreed to take thousands of illegal immigrants from Australia. Why? I will study this dumb deal!” He stated incorrectly that the US would have to take “illegal immigrants” from Australian prisons. To the contrary - the US would only have to take refugees – and those it had vetted. Yet interestingly, Trump’s controversial Executive Order on immigration - now rejected by a federal court - did honor the Australian agreement. The order temporarily suspended refugee resettlement to the US, barred all Syrian refugees from entering the US, and declared a massive cut in the refugee intake (to 50,000 from 110,000).[3] The White House confirmed the Australia deal will go ahead, but said refugees arriving on US soil would be subject to “extreme vetting”. This could mean indefinite delays.

So what does this all mean? It’s clearly an uncomfortable position for Turnbull, a fellow conservative, anti-immigrant leader and natural ally for Trump. He has avoided making many statements about the call except to declare that he understands the agreement is still in force. Turnbull has been under pressure in the last year to change Australia’s asylum policy – in February 2016, thousands took to the street across Australia to demand that asylum seekers in medical care on the mainland be allowed to stay (see # Letthemstay). Demonstrators even blockaded the Lady Cilento Children’s Hospital in Brisbane, and doctors prevented the government from taking a baby asylum seeker to the offshore camps. In August, the Guardian released the “Nauru files”, documenting widespread and shocking levels of abuse in Australia’s off-shore detention centers.[4] The UN, Save the Children, Amnesty International, the Australia’s Children’s Rights Commissioner[5], and the Australian Medical Association (AMA) have all raised serious concerns about the detention centers.  The AMA stated after the Nauru files emerged that “These disturbing reports echo long-held concerns by the AMA about the lack of proper physical and mental health care being provided to people in immigration detention...The reports detail high levels of trauma and mental illness, especially in children being detained on Nauru.” [6]

There has also been a strong campaign, “No Business in Abuse”, to put pressure on the private companies running the camps (Wilson Security and Broadspectrum - the latter is owned by Spanish multinational Ferrovial) and both have stated they will not continue their contracts beyond October this year.[7] Turnbull no doubt hopes that the heat will die down, the agreement will go through and he will find other private companies to take up the contracts. Even if it takes years and the US ends up taking only a dozen refugees he can still hold it as a victory.

But what’s really at stake here is the lives of hundreds of people in detention. The more than 1,400 people in off-shore detention continue to live in limbo, and Trump isn’t likely to deliver on the agreement anytime soon. So Turnbull should finally put an end to the camps and bring the refugees to the Australian mainland. Turnbull has sought to justify his decision not to admit the asylum seekers on humanitarian grounds: “Securing our borders has increased public confidence and enabled Australia to have one of the generous humanitarian systems”. [8] Yet it can hardly be a generous humanitarian policy to hold children and families for months, even years, in abusive detention conditions.

The concern for Europe is that similar polices are gaining ground here. Turnbull has encouraged Europe to follow Australia’s strong border security regime to create ‘order out of the chaos’.[9] European leaders meeting in Malta on February 3rd allocated 200 million euros to Libya to stop boats of migrants and refugees entering European waters.[10] They also plan to set-up ‘safe’ refugee camps in Libya and encourage the voluntary repatriation of refugees. Yet, as Angela Merkel explained to Trump, states have clear obligations under the refugee convention to accept asylum seekers. Europe’s leaders should urge Turnbull to bring all those in off-shore detention to Australia and certainly not follow Australia’s example.[11] During a time of xenophobia and racism this is exactly what Europe needs to steer away from.

This piece was originally published on 14 February 2017 in Die Tageszeitung (in German).


[1] For statistics on those in detention see: https://www.humanrights.gov.au/immigration-detention-statistics

[2] http://www.reuters.com/article/us-un-assembly-refugees-idUSKCN11R03X

[3] See the executive order here:  https://www.nytimes.com/2017/01/27/us/politics/refugee-muslim-executive-order-trump.html and discussion of it here: http://www.pewresearch.org/fact-tank/2017/01/30/key-facts-about-refugees-to-the-u-s/

[4] https://www.theguardian.com/news/series/nauru-files

[5] See a 2015 report on Children in Detention http://www.humanrights.gov.au/our-work/asylum-seekers-and-refugees/publications/forgotten-children-national-inquiry-children

[6] https://ama.com.au/ausmed/asylum-seekers-subject-%E2%80%98atrocious%E2%80%99-treatment

[7] https://www.theguardian.com/australia-news/2016/sep/01/wilson-security-to-withdraw-from-australias-offshore-detention-centres

[8] http://www.smh.com.au/federal-politics/political-news/australia-to-take-central-american-refugees-as-malcolm-turnbull-pledges-to-do-more-at-obama-summit-20160920-grkcq9.html

[9] https://www.theguardian.com/australia-news/2016/sep/20/malcolm-turnbull-tells-world-leaders-to-follow-australias-asylum-policies

[10] http://www.aljazeera.com/news/2017/02/eu-leaders-ink-deal-stem-refugee-flow-libya-170203151643286.html

[11] See the call from Australian coalition https://www.theguardian.com/australia-news/2017/feb/03/close-manus-and-nauru-bring-refugees-here-say-70-organisations