A transcript of a phone conversation between President Donald J. Trump and Australian Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull from January this year was leaked on Aug. 3.
While it was reported at the time that President Trump and Prime Minister Turnbull had locked horns over a refugee exchange deal brokered during the final days of the Obama administration, this is the first time details of the conversation have been made public.
Given that the conversation occurred days after Mr. Trump announced a ban on immigrants from “many different countries from where there is terror,” it is no surprise that he balked at having to stand by the agreement, which would see more than 1,250 proven refugee cases referred from the Australian offshore detention centers on Nauru and Manus Island to the United States.
Less noted by the U.S. press is how the conversation also speaks volumes about the political mood around asylum seekers that has prevailed in Australia for nearly two decades. Particularly striking are the Prime Minister’s repeated assurances that the United States was not obligated to resettle anyone, only to stand by the agreement and vet the refugees “in good faith.”
If Mr. Trump was concerned about the optics of honoring the deal, Mr. Turnbull, too, seems to have been more concerned with saving face than with the well-being of the refugees. Sadly, this is in keeping with the “race to the bottom” on refugee policy that has plagued Australian politics since at least 2001.
Since 2001, successive Australian governments have employed a raft of so-called deterrent measures, purportedly designed to thwart the exploitative business model of smugglers transporting asylum seekers by boat from transit countries such as Indonesia.
Detainees can languish in harsh and bleak conditions for years at a time, with little certainty as to their fate.
Offshore detention in particular is a deliberately cruel policy, which punishes would-be refugees who arrive by boat in the name of deterring others from taking the same course. Detainees can languish in harsh and bleak conditions for years at a time, with little certainty as to their fate.
The 2010 Australian of the Year, mental health advocate Professor Patrick McGorry, described the centers as “mental illness factories,” where the trauma of detention is added to the trauma of war and persecution the detainees have fled. Violence and sexual abuse have been regular problems at the detention facilities.
The United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees has repeatedly condemned the policy as inhumane and a breach of Australia’s obligations under the Refugee Convention. It did so as recently as last week, in the context of the U.S. deal, which the U.N.H.C.R. had agreed to help facilitate on the understanding that other “vulnerable refugees with close family ties in Australia would ultimately be allowed to settle there.”
The United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees has repeatedly condemned the policy as inhumane and a breach of Australia’s obligations under the Refugee Convention.
It has recently been informed that this will not be the case.
“We will decide who comes to this country and the circumstances in which they come,” said then Prime Minister John Howard in 2001 upon announcing the Pacific Solution, the plan to house asylum seekers in detention centers on islands in the Pacific.
The policy, implemented by the Howard Liberal-National Coalition Government with bipartisan support, was triggered by events surrounding the Norwegian freighter MV Tampa which, with 433 rescued asylum seekers on board, was refused entry to Australian waters.
While the policy was condemned by N.G.O.s and refugee advocates, it proved to be popular with large numbers of Australians. Indeed, successive leaders of both political stripes have found it necessary to maintain a hardline attitude toward asylum seekers arriving by sea.
The policy was dismantled by Labor Prime Minister Kevin Rudd following his election in 2007, a move which contributed to his losing leadership of the party. It was reinstated in 2010 in altered form by his successor and former deputy, Julia Gillard, following a number of disasters at sea.
Prompted by the political failure of his decision to repeal the Pacific Solution, upon returning to the prime ministership in 2013, Mr. Rudd pledged, “From now on, any asylum seeker who arrives in Australia by boat will have no chance of being settled in Australia as refugees.”
When the coalition won back government following the federal election of 2013, new Prime Minister Tony Abbott, who had campaigned on a promise to “Stop the boats,” maintained the hardline attitude. Under Prime Minister Turnbull, bipartisan support for the policies continues.
Given that from 2007 to 2013, an estimated 1,200 asylum seekers perished at sea, arguments in support of the existing policies have been couched in humanitarian terms: it is about saving lives. But in practice there is little humane about it. As U.N.H.C.R. chief Filippo Grandi pointed out last week: “There is a fundamental contradiction in saving people at sea, only to mistreat and neglect them on land.
“At a time of record levels of displacement globally,” he continued, “it is crucial that all states offer protection to survivors of war and persecution and not outsource their responsibilities to others. Refugees, our fellow human beings, deserve as much.”
With no sign of relenting from Australia’s leaders, for now it seems these proven refugees’ best hope—such as it is—is that the United States can offer them the welcome that Australia has not.