Did President Donald Trump have a point when, according to reports, he blasted the Australian prime minister on a phone call Tuesday, saying the refugee resettlement deal Australia struck with the Obama administration is “the worst deal ever”?
The agreement, Trump later said while speaking to reporters at the White House, involves bringing more than 1,000 “illegal immigrants who were in prisons” into the US.
Australia probably won’t appreciate its facilities in the Pacific being described as “prisons,” and the asylum seekers detained there probably don’t appreciate being called “illegal immigrants.” But here we are.
“When a previous administration does something, you have to respect that,” Trump said. “But you can also say ‘why are we doing this?’”
Why indeed? Here’s what’s going on with the US-Australia deal, which is really two separate agreements that amount to a refugee swap.
Australia and the US both have offshore refugee processing programs
The US has a program developed by the Obama administration: People fleeing violence in Central America are being hosted in Costa Rica while their refugee applications are processed. The agreement was made after more than 100,000 Central American asylum seekers arrived in the US in 2015, a fivefold increase from just a few years prior. Those camps are expected to host about 200 pre-screened people at a time, while they await resettlement approval by the US or other countries.
Australia's system is much more aggressive: they intercept boats carrying asylum seekers and ship their passengers to offshore detention facilities — one in a tiny Pacific island state called Nauru, and one on an island in Papua New Guinea. Australia has said about 1,600 people are currently detained in the Pacific facilities.
Conditions there are dire, and the asylum seekers — including many children — are essentially imprisoned until a country agrees to take them, which Australia has promised it will never do. Many have been trapped there for years.
The system has attracted widespread criticism by pretty much everyone in the international community, including the United States.
Australia and the US have essentially agreed to swap refugees
In September 2016, Australia announced it would accept refugees from the camps in Costa Rica, without specifying a number or estimate. In November, less than a week after the election, the Obama administration said the US would take in refugees from the Australian-managed facilities in the Pacific.
Is this a good deal for the US?
The deal helps to solve a major problem for Australia — the same can't really be said for the US. Australia's offshore detention facilities are an ongoing blight on the country's standing in the international community, particularly at the United Nations, where François Crepeau, the special rapporteur on migrant human rights, has called the system “cruel, inhuman, and degrading.”
The Australian government has blanket refused to resettle anybody from the Pacific camps in Australia, and the UN’s refugee resettlement agency has insisted the facilities are illegal, refusing to co-operate with them (they’re making a “one-off” exception by helping implement the US deal). This means Australia now faces the prospect of running an offshore detention program long into the foreseeable future — one much of the international community says breaches international law.
So the US has done Australia a big favor by stepping in. On some level, you could compare it to the US allies that have agreed to resettle American detainees from Guantanamo Bay: Not only does it help reduce the number of people detained in the facilities — potentially making conditions there less awful — but on a deeper level the US has legitimized the Australian system, perhaps not with an explicit stamp of approval, but by showing the offshore detention policy works.
The US-backed refugee camps in Costa Rica have drawn much less international criticism, and represent less of a domestic political challenge for the US government.
In terms of absolute numbers, the US agreed to a one-off transfer of up to 1,250 refugees from the Pacific, while Australia didn't commit to specific numbers, saying only that it would accept refugees from the Central American program as part of an overall annual refugee intake that will hit almost 19,000 by 2019.
From a Trumpian perspective, the US is getting almost nothing in return for helping Australia deal with a major problem. Sad!
And from a compassion-toward-refugees perspective, the US is helping resolve a huge political and humanitarian failure by Australia, without extracting any public guarantees that Australia would change its ways — or even improve the living conditions of the asylum seekers who will remain trapped in the Pacific for years to come.