Five quotes from the Turnbull-Trump call show the folly of Australia’s refugee policy

Asher Hirsch, Monash University

The Washington Post’s leaked transcript of a January phone call between President Donald Trump and Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull highlights the failure of Australia’s deal with the US to take refugees from offshore processing centres on Nauru and Manus Island.

It also reveals Turnbull’s desperation not to let people who came by boat settle in Australia.

The refugee deal was made in the dying days of the Obama administration. Trump, upon assuming office, tweeted his dismay over it:

 

Here are a few of the key issues revealed in the leaked transcript.

Turnbull: ‘You can decide to take them or to not take them after vetting. You can decide to take 1,000 or 100. It is entirely up to you.’

Turnbull’s comments highlight a key fault with the US deal.

Throughout the call, Turnbull reiterates that the only obligation on the US under this deal is to consider taking refugees. Trump asks:

Suppose I vet them closely and I do not take any?

Turnbull responds:

That is the point I have been trying to make.

The transcript highlights concerns that the deal could end up with the US deciding not to take any refugees from Manus Island and Nauru. A key question for the Turnbull government is what its plan is for the rest of the people left to languish indefinitely.

The harms of offshore processing are well known. Accommodation standards, facilities and services in the detention centres remain well below international standards. There have been consistent and alarming reports of abuse (sexual and otherwise). There has been one murder and six other deaths from inadequate medical care in offshore detention centres.

Turnbull: ‘We will then hold up our end of the bargain’

During the conversation, Turnbull highlighted that in exchange for the US taking people from Manus Island and Nauru:

We will then hold up our end of the bargain by taking in our country 31 [inaudible] that you need to move on from.

This is a reference to the commitment the Turnbull government made in 2016 to resettle in Australia an unspecified number of Central American refugees currently residing in a camp in Costa Rica. This aspect of the deal still remains unclear, with the transcript “inaudible” during this key moment.

Although the Turnbull government strenuously denied the deal was a “people swap”, it has been cast as a quid-pro-quo arrangement, whereby the Australian government can publicly maintain its unwavering commitment to an offshore detention policy that is no longer sustainable.

Turnbull: ‘The people – none of these people are from the conflict zone. They are basically economic refugees from Iran, Pakistan and Afghanistan.’

This statement highlights either wilful ignorance or blatant deceitfulness by Turnbull in an attempt to sell our responsibility to the US.

The Department of Immigration and Border Protection’s statistics show that of the 2,235 people on Manus Island and Nauru who have been assessed, almost 80% have been found to be persecuted refugees.

The term “economic refugee” is also a misnomer. Those found to be refugees are people fleeing persecution, based on who they are or what they believe.

By telling Trump these people are “basically economic refugees”, Turnbull also misrepresents the ongoing persecution and conflict that people from these countries are experiencing daily.

Trump: ‘What is the thing with boats? Why do you discriminate against boats?’

Trump raises a good point about Australia’s “discrimination against boats”.

The UN Special Rapporteur on the Human Rights of Migrants has highlighted Australia inhumane and discriminatory policies directed at boat arrivals. This includes mandatory and prolonged detention, as well as indefinite separation from families, restrictions on social services, and no access to citizenship.

Trump: ‘I hate taking these people. I guarantee you they are bad. That is why they are in prison right now.’

Trump’s insistence that the people detained by Australia on Manus Island and Nauru “are bad” – which Turnbull did not contest – demonstrates the disdain and lack of understanding common to both the Australian and US governments with respect to forced displacement.

The notion of immigration detention being akin to “prison” underscores the punitive nature of the Turnbull government’s approach to people desperately seeking asylum – a description Turnbull fails to rebut.

Trump’s repeated attempts to draw a link between genuine refugees and terrorism are deeply troubling. ASIO Director-General Duncan Lewis has said no such link exists. In Australia and the US, both the media and the government have used this misleading narrative to justify the persecution of refugees and asylum seekers.

What next?

Ultimately, the transcript reveals that Australia maintains control and power over the centres – essentially highlighting that Manus Island and Nauru are Australia’s responsibility.

As Turnbull said:

They have been under our supervision for over three years now and we know exactly everything about them.

As Australia maintains responsibility for these people, we must ensure their safety and dignity. As the transcripts reveal, the US deal may amount to nothing.

The ConversationA decade ago, the Howard government faced the same question of what to do with hundreds of refugees on Nauru and Manus Island who had nowhere else to go. John Howard eventually realised the only option was to bring them to Australia. Turnbull must do the same – and quickly.

Asher Hirsch, PhD Student, Monash University

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.

Closing the country

This article was originally published on APPS Policy Forum.

Asher Hirsch unpicks the precarious future of Australia’s hard-line asylum seeker policy.

What does the future hold for refugee policy in Australia? Following a brutal policy approach to people seeking asylum in recent years and a blanket policy of harsh deterrence from both major parties, a key question now is whether these policies are sustainable, let alone desirable, over the longer term. Already, tensions and challenges have emerged that threaten Australia’s absolute refusal to face up to its refugee responsibilities.

Continue reading “Closing the country”

Does What Happens Offshore, Stay Offshore?

This article was originally published on Asylum Insight.

Australia leads the world in outsourcing and offshoring its human rights obligations. It is the only nation to subcontract the management of its entire detention centre network to private for-profit corporations. It is also the only nation that mandatorily detains those who arrive without a visa, and sends those who come by boat to third countries for processing. Between 2001 and 2007, and again from 2012, the Australian government has attempted to avoid both moral and legal responsibility for asylum seekers by sending them to offshore detention centres in the Pacific.

Australia maintains that responsibility for the management of these centres, and for the numerous abuses that have taken place there, rests solely with the host countries of Papua New Guinea and Nauru. The secretary of the Department of Immigration and Border Protection, Mr Michael Pezzullo, asserted during the 2015 Senate inquiry into conditions at the detention centre on Nauru that:

‘The Australian government does not run the Nauru Regional Processing Centre, or RPC. It is managed by the government of Nauru, under Nauruan law, with support from the Australian government. The government of Nauru operates the RPC, assesses asylum claims and, where persons are found to be in need of protection, arranges settlement. The government of Nauru is specifically responsible for security and good order and the care and welfare of persons residing in the centre.’ (emphasis added)

Continue reading “Does What Happens Offshore, Stay Offshore?”

High Court Ruling: Our Government Can Still Decide to Protect Refugee Rights

This article was originally published on Right Now.

Wednesday’s High Court decision upholding the legality of detention in Nauru is tragic in its result. But the decision was far from a vindication for the Government. In important ways the judgment signals an increasing willingness by at least some members of the High Court to rein in the excesses of Australia’s detention policies.

The case was litigated by the Human Rights Law Centre on behalf of a Bangladeshi woman brought to Australia while she was pregnant, and centred on two main claims: that no Australian law authorised the government to fund offshore detention arrangements, and that the detention by the Commonwealth Government on Nauru was unconstitutional.

Continue reading “High Court Ruling: Our Government Can Still Decide to Protect Refugee Rights”

Did ‘ending’ detention on Nauru also end the constitutional challenge to offshore processing?

Joyce Chia, Monash University and Asher Hirsch, Monash University

The Nauruan government announced earlier this week that it will remove the remaining restrictions on the liberty of the asylum seekers detained there, and process all pending claims for asylum. It initially said it would process the claims in a week, but has since backtracked from that commitment.

Many have claimed that the announcement is a strategic move to undermine a constitutional challenge to Australia’s offshore detention regime, heard by the High Court this week – although the Australian government has denied this. So does the policy change spell the end of the challenge?

While that question can only be answered after the High Court’s decision, the hearings give a hint. The short answer is that the Nauruan government’s announcements have already had a much greater effect in the High Court than on Nauru itself. Continue reading “Did ‘ending’ detention on Nauru also end the constitutional challenge to offshore processing?”

The Freedom Interviews: Mark Isaacs

Originally Published in Right Now.

Right Now’s Asher Hirsch speaks to Mark Isaacs about his experiences working for the Salvation Army in the Nauru Offshore Processing Centre and about his new book, The Undesirables.

Right Now: When you landed in Nauru what were your first thoughts and feelings? Can you describe a little bit about what Nauru is like as a country?

Mark Isaacs: The first thing you notice about Nauru is that it is a really small country. There are about ten thousand people on it and when the plane comes into the land, the whole island is engulfed by the airplane. One of the asylum seekers thought he was landing on water.

It is extremely hot. We arrived just prior to the wet season and that took a while to get used to. The centre of the island is mined-out phosphate rock. in the centre of the mined-out phosphate rock is where the detention centre is, or at least the one that I worked at. It is a hot, barren landscape.

It is a very poor island. Around the edges you have these beautiful tropical beaches and palm trees, then you quickly realise dilapidated housing, deteriorated infrastructure, old and abandoned cars. There is no fresh food on the island and a high unemployment rate – there are a lot of people sitting around doing nothing. When Australia says, “we will give you a few billion dollars to hold asylum seekers”, it seems like an acceptable offer to a poor country like Nauru.

Going into the detention centre, what were you told by the Salvation Army about what you were meant to be doing there? Continue reading “The Freedom Interviews: Mark Isaacs”