Diplomatic relations between the United States and Australia grew surprisingly tense in recent days, after reports emerged of a contentious phone call between President Donald Trump and Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull on Wednesday.
Trump accused Turnbull of using a recently brokered refugee resettlement deal to send the US the “next Boston bombers,” calling the arrangement “the worst deal ever” before hanging up on him, according to The Washington Post.
The fate of the refugee deal has been unclear ever since Trump signed an executive order halting refugee arrivals into the US for 120 days and barring travellers from seven predominantly Muslim countries.
The Australian government this week sought reassurance that the deal will be honored regardless of the immigration ban. And though the White House has said the deal will be honored, details are still up in the air.
Here’s everything you need to know about the deal that has sparked a small diplomatic crisis between two usually friendly nations:
What the refugee deal is
Last November, the Australian government announced it had reached an agreement with the Obama administration to resettle in the United States refugees who are currently held in detention facilities on two islands far from the Australian mainland: Nauru and Manus Island.
The exact number of refugees being resettled wasn’t specified by the Australian government, but White House Press Secretary Sean Spicer pegged it at approximately 1,250 — not quite the “thousands” Trump had claimed in his tweet.
The nationalities of the refugees have not been confirmed by the Australian government, but refugee advocates say many are from Iran, Iraq, Somalia, and Sudan — countries on which Trump recently imposed immigration restrictions — as well as Afghanistan and Pakistan. Some of the refugees are also stateless.
Just two months before the deal was struck, the Australian government announced it would take in asylum-seekers from US-backed detention facilities in Costa Rica.
While the agreement is not explicitly a quid pro quo arrangement, the two deals ensure the countries are essentially swapping refugees with one another, with each country relieving the other of the responsibility of detaining asylum-seekers.
Why the international community dislikes it
Australia has long been criticised by countries around the world — including the US — for its practice of turning back asylum boats, implementing mandatory detention policies, and transferring refugees to other countries.
The average amount of time refugees are held in the detention facilities is 469 days, and nearly one-third of those detained have been held for more than two years, according to data from the Australian government.
Beyond that, the offshore detention centres have become infamous for reports of human-rights abuses and violence against detainees, many of whom are children.
Humanitarian workers who have visited the Nauru and Manus Island detention centres allege that instances of violence, sexual assault, and degrading treatment are commonplace, and many refugees and asylum-seekers suffer severe mental-health problems due to their prolonged detention and uncertainty for their future.
Even North Korea, The Guardian reported, slammed Australia at a United Nations human-rights council session in 2015, saying it had “serious concerns” about reports of human-rights violations at the facilities.
The deal for the US to resettle the refugees has therefore come under some scrutiny, as it essentially legitimises Australia’s practice of intercepting asylum seekers and detaining them instead of forcing the country to change its policies.
The US agreement to resettle the refugees has been given the blessing of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), the UN’s refugee agency, which will help the two countries in the resettlement process — but, like the US-Australia deal, it’s a one-off arrangement that likely won’t be repeated.
The UNHCR maintains that Australia’s policy of detaining asylum-seekers offshore is illegal.
“We, all of us, are very clear that this is a one-off, good offices, exceptional humanitarian type of involvement because we do not believe that the future of handling this lies in sending people to Manus Island and Nauru,” Volter Turk, assistant high commissioner with the UNHCR, told The New York Times last November.
Why Australia won’t just resettle the refugees on its mainland
The Turnbull government has been ironclad in its opposition to resettling the refugees detained on Nauru and Manus Island, arguing that the issue is one of border security.
Although the country recently pledged to up its annual refugee intake to 19,000 from 13,750 in 2015-16, most of those arrivals are resettled through the UN’s refugee agency. They arrive in Australia legally, whereas those who travel by boat do so illegally.
Australia is loath to accept the boat-borne arrivals, on grounds that successful asylum-seekers who make the journey by boat will embolden others to attempt the same and perpetuate the business of human smuggling.
In fact, Turnbull is so opposed to allowing the refugees detained on Nauru and Manus to enter Australia, his administration refused to entertain an offer from New Zealand to resettle 150 of those refugees per year. The line of reasoning was that should those refugees eventually gain New Zealand citizenship, they would also gain travel rights to Australia.
“It’s a back-door way to get into Australia, and would have been a green light to people smugglers,” Australia’s immigration minister, Peter Dutton, told media last April.
Even when Australia announced the refugee deal with the US, Turnbull took pains to describe the situation as a “one-off agreement” that would not be offered to future asylum-seekers attempting the journey to Australia by sea.
“We need to send, now more than ever, the clearest and most unequivocal message to people smugglers and their would-be passengers that, if they seek to come to Australia unlawfully, they will not succeed,” Turnbull said at a November press conference announcing the deal.
Turnbull even announced a so-called “ring of steel” to enforce Australia’s border in preparation for the deal, lest the news encourage a wave of asylum-seekers to attempt to travel to Australia by sea in the hopes that they, too, can be resettled in the US.
The government launched “the largest and most capable maritime surveillance and response fleet Australia has ever deployed,” specifically to intercept boats of asylum seekers and turn them away from the country.
Australians have been wondering about the future of the deal since the moment it was announced by Turnbull, as it’s no secret that Trump has been opposed to allowing refugees into the US.
In the wake of the now-infamous phone call between Trump and Turnbull, the White House has said it plans to honour the deal and apply “extreme vetting” to all the arrivals. Indeed, the executive order Trump signed barring all refugees for 120 days included an exception for preexisting international agreements, widely presumed to refer to the deal with Australia.
But recent reports from Reuters and CNN indicate that US immigration officials have been postponing interviews with asylum-seekers on Nauru, raising speculation that the Trump administration is already seeking to block or renegotiate the resettlement deal.
It’s also unclear what US-Australian relations will look like going forward, especially if the refugee deal collapses. Australia has long been a strong ally of the US, and is the only country to have fought alongside it in every conflict since World War I.
Top Republican senators showed support for Australia on Wednesday and Thursday, and Sen. John McCain of Arizona and Sen. Bob Corker of Tennessee both phoned Australia’s ambassador to the US, Joe Hockey, to reassure him of US support.
And on Friday, Trump extended something of an olive branch to Turnbull in a tweet:
Thank you to Prime Minister of Australia for telling the truth about our very civil conversation that FAKE NEWS media lied about. Very nice!
— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) February 3, 2017
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