WASHINGTON, 28 AUGST 2017 (ABC) — The Australia-US refugee deal signed in September last year was not the first time both nations have tried to trade refugees — a similar deal from 2007 fizzled, with not a single transfer being made.
This latest agreement could go the same way but for different reasons.
A decade ago, the Howard government offered to resettle Haitian and Cuban refugees from a US immigration facility in Guantanamo Bay — not to be confused with the military prison nearby.
In exchange the US agreed to take 200 refugees a year from Manus Island and Nauru.
It was the dying days of the ‘Pacific Solution’ — the facility in Papua New Guinea had been empty since 2004 and fewer than 100 refugees remained on Nauru.
“We considered this deal to be a bizarre sort of ridiculous and bizarre policy that sort of defied logic,” said lawyer David Manne, who at the time represented most of the Rohingya and Sri Lankan Tamil refugees on Nauru.
“On the one hand it was seeking to signal a further harsh form of border protection and on the other hand it was entering into a bilateral deal with another country that provides resettlement for refugees that is safety and the ability to rebuild their lives,” he told the ABC.
Not long after the deal was signed the Coalition lost power to Labor.
The Rudd government resettled the remaining refugees in Australia after labelling the Pacific centres “wrong” and “a waste of taxpayer money”.
Chris Evans, who was immigration Minister in the Rudd government, told a Senate estimates hearing in 2008 the US-Australia deal was well and truly dead.
“I will take a couple of deep breaths so that I can be diplomatic,” he said when asked if the arrangement would be continuing.
“I am advised that it is defunct. If it was not, I would have made sure that it was. It will not be pursued.”
Nearly a decade later, on the sidelines of the UN General Assembly in New York in September 2016, representatives from the Obama and Turnbull governments signed off on a similar deal, one that has deeply irked President Donald Trump.
Earlier this year, Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull made it clear to the new President the deal can be fulfilled without the US taking a single person from Manus Island or Nauru.
The window to resettle refugees on Manus Island is closing — Australia is trying to shut the PNG facility by October 31.
The US has hit its refugee intake cap of 50,000 for this year and it will not reset again until October 1, giving the Government a month-long window to get any eligible refugees processed and relocated.
Human Rights Watch’s refugee program director, Bill Frelick, says he thinks it is unlikely any refugees will be brought from Manus Island or Nauru to the US.
“A number of the refugees on Manus Island and Nauru are coming from the countries that are listed in the travel ban by the US — places like Iran — so it is very hard for me to imagine in the exercise of discretion — which this is — that the US would choose to bring refugees from Australia to the US,” he told the ABC.
Manne says both countries must honour the deal — in good faith — if Australia continues to refuse to resettle the refugees in PNG and Nauru.
“The fundamental fact is at the moment for those men, women and children who are stuck in this terrible predicament on Manus Island as refugees the only option for evacuation to safety so they can rebuild their lives is the US deal,” he said.
It is still not entirely clear what the US would get in return for fulfilling its end of the agreement.
Australia has agreed to accept some Central American refugees being held in Costa Rica, but parts of the deal remain classified.
The US “wrote the playbook” for offshore detention.
When a transcript of Trump’s phone call with Turnbull was leaked earlier this month it illustrated the US President’s limited understanding of immigration policy.
Turnbull explained several times to his US counterpart how Australia refuses to settle people who arrive by boat as an attempt to deter others from making the dangerous journey.
At one point, after Turnbull says Australia would not even accept a Nobel Prize winner who came by boat, Trump said: “That is a good idea. We should do that too. You are worse than I am.”
Seemingly unbeknown to Trump, the US has its own offshore processing policy for boat arrivals — one that has been in place for decades and remains in effect today.
“The US actually wrote the playbook that Australia is following,” Frelick said.
In the 1990s Haitians were fleeing their homeland in droves by boats bound for the US mainland.
“The US was seeking a way to prevent Haitians from setting foot in the US where they would, by having their feet on US soil, be able to avail themselves of statutory rights in the US, and the immigration and nationality act which incorporates the US obligations of the Refugee Convention,” he said.
“The US tried a variety of things — to do shipboard screening. They had a boat in Kingston Harbour, Jamaica where they were trying to screen refugees and they were just overwhelmed and they couldn’t do it onboard ships.
“[The US] then decided ‘hey we have this Naval base at Guantanamo Bay in Cuba’, and they ended up bringing Haitians and later they brought Cubans.”
From there they stay at the naval facility until the US finds third countries to take them or they voluntarily go home.
The US State Department says 445 mostly Cuban migrants have been resettled from the Guantanamo Bay facility to third countries — including Australia — since 1996. ..PACNEWS [/restrict]