November 18, 2016
The Australian government Sunday announced it has reached an agreement with the United States under which many of the 1,700 boat people Australia won’t admit will be resettled in the United States. The largest block of those people are Iranians.
The big question is whether incoming President Donald Trump will spike the agreement since most of the boat people are Muslims. Given the time the US immigration system requires to clear immigrants, it is unlikely that even a single one of the boat people will be admitted before Trump’s inauguration January 20, allowing him to shelve the agreement, if he chooses.
However, the Australian announcement has drawn hardly any attention in the United States, so Trump may not act on it—even he even hears of it. The numbers involved are a pittance compared to Trump’s campaign talk of deporting 11 million illegal immigrants.
It appeared that the United States agreed to accept all of the 1,700 boat people who are found to meet the international standards for refugees—having a legitimate fear of persecution if sent home—and to pass American health checks and other requirements. There was speculation that the poor conditions under which the boat people have been housed on Nauru and Manus islands may have caused their health—including mental health—to deteriorate to the point some would be inadmissible under US law.
On Sunday, Australian Prime Minister Malcolm Turn-bull and Immigration Minister Peter Dutton announced the deal, saying it would prioritize families, women and children for settlement in the US from among the 1,616 people found to be refugees so far.
Turnbull said, “It is a one-off agreement. It will not be repeated. It is only available to those currently in the regional processing centers.”
“It will not be available to any persons seeking to reach Australia in the future.”
The Australians are very concerned that the agreement might prompt more people to try to reach Australia by boat, assuming they will then be allowed to go to the United States.
Any refugees not taken to the United States and remaining on Nauru will be eligible for 20-year temporary visas on Nauru, a poor island of 10,000 people, the smallest country in the United Nations.
Australia’s opposition leader, Bill Shorten, offered somewhat snide support for the resettlement deal. “It has taken the government three-plus years to negotiate this deal, but we are pleased if it is an end to indefinite detention,” Shorten said.
Human Rights Watch’s Australia director, Elaine Pearson, said the deal was not perfect but was a “major step forward” to resolving the impasse of Australia’s asylum seekers. “We look forward to seeing more details about this agreement, and we urge both the US and Australia to move quickly to avoid more mental anguish and trauma for people who have suffered so much,” she said.
Over the last three years, the remote facilities have been plagued by reports of shocking living conditions, poor management and deteriorating mental health of asylum seekers.
An Iranian asylum seeker was beaten to death in a wave of unrest on Manus Island in February 2014, and on Nauru in May 2016 anther asylum seeker self-immolated in front of staff from the UN.
According to the latest figures from Australia’s immigration department there are 872 people, all men, held in the Manus Island detention center in the country of Papua New Guinea and 390, some in families, held in the Nauru facility. Another 370 are on the mainland of Australia undergoing medical treatment for serious physical or mental conditions.
The Australian govern-ment’s deal will only apply to those who have received positive refugee determinations. On Manus Island there have been 675 positive refugee determinations out of 1,015 and on Nauru there have been 941 positive determinations out of 1,195.
Those without refugee status will not be considered for admission by the United States. However, it isn’t clear how many of 594 without refugee status have been rejected for that status and how many are still awaiting review of their applications by the UNHCR.
Turnbull said he anticipated people smugglers would “use this agreement as a marketing opportunity” but the government had “put in place the largest and most capable maritime surveillance and response fleet Australia has ever deployed” to stop journeys by sea.
“Any people-smuggling boats that attempt to reach Australia will be intercepted and turned back.” The boats originate in Indonesia.
Speculation that the Australian government was negotiating a resettlement deal with the US was sparked by an announcement in September that Australia would take Central American refugees from camps in Costa Rica.
It appeared to some that Australia was, in effect, trading the boat people, who have become extremely controversial in Australia, for Spanish-speaking refugees. The issue isn’t refugees. Australia already takes in 14,000 refugees annually from around the world. (The United States has taken in an average of 80,000 refugees a year for decades.)
The issue is that the boat people have become an immense political issue in Australia. Neither of the two major parties is willing to accept them and both compete to sound tougher on the issue. No boat with refugees has made it to Australia in more than two years. The last arrival was in July 2014. Since then, the Australian Navy has forced the boats back to Indonesia.
But the numbers of boat people are trifling. According to Australia’s figures, an average of 5,000 people a year fly into Australia—usually on tourist visas—and then apply as refugees to stay. Yet those much larger numbers have never become a political issue in Australia the way the boat people have.
Among those on Manus and Nauru are people from Iran, Syria, Sri Lanka, Pakistan, Bangladesh, Afghanistan and Iraq, as well as some who are stateless.
Behrouz Boochani, an Iranian journalist detained on Manus Island, told Guardian Australia refugees he had spoken to would be happy to go to the US.
“Be sure that most people would love to go to America, but some people need to join their families in Australia,” he said. “I think Australia has to respect them because they want to join their families.