[NOTE: Events move so quickly these days that I often do a whole bunch of research on something, but by the time I write the post the caravan moves on. This is one of those posts. But the issues remain important, even if our attention has shifted to other things.]
I have to say that until Thursday I had paid very little to attention to Australia’s immigration policy. But if you look at some of the history going back several decades, you’ll see that Australia’s struggles with the issues of illegal immigration and refugees highlight the problems faced by so many Western nations in the face of unwanted illegal immigration. Australia is somewhat atypical because it’s an island, but it exhibits the general tendency of a natural clash between a country’s desire to be magnanimous and to offer safe havens for the truly needy and the desire to protect itself from those who are perceived as a threat to overburden its resources and/or change its nature for the worse. There’s also the fear that letting in some people would unleash the floodgates to way too many others by providing an incentive for illegal immigration. And then there’s the difficulty of determining which arrivals really are true asylum seekers fleeing vicious persecution, and which are people one might call “economic refugees” who should be getting in line to be legal immigrants instead.
Which brings us to the deal Obama struck with Australia last November to accept some of the refugees that country holds in island camps administered by neighbor nations such as Papua New Guinea. Thursday the deal suddenly and belatedly became big news, but only because of reports of a supposedly contentious phone call between Trump and the Australian PM. That does not mean that the deal wasn’t reported on when it had first occurred; it was. It just wasn’t one of those viral stories everybody was talking about back then.
So what was the Obama/Australia deal? One of its peculiarities was that it was made after Trump’s election—in fact, right after his election (that’s another reason so many people were distracted at the time; so much attention was focused on the Trump win). One of the earliest articles I could find about the Obama deal was written on November 11, 2016, and was based on an unofficial report:
The refugees are primarily from the Middle East.
Coalition frontbencher Christopher Pyne said there is “plenty of time” to get an agreement in place before U.S. President-elect Donald Trump takes office in January…
The refugees are currently placed in camps in Nauru and Papua New Guinea. Australia has some of the harshest immigration laws in the world.
The government recently announced plans to put a lifetime ban on everyone trying to enter the country by sea.
So from the start it seems it was rather clear that this deal was made at that time in order to finesse Trump. Otherwise, the timing was just too too too coincidental.
Here’s how CBS reported the Obama deal on November 13, 2016, shortly after it became official:
The United States has agreed to resettle an unspecified number of refugees languishing in Pacific island camps in a deal that is expected to inspire more asylum seekers to attempt to reach Australia by boat, officials said on Sunday.
So, the deal was expected to encourage more refugees to come to Australia by boat, and Australia will refuse to take, them, too. More from the November 13 article:
Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull would not say whether he had discussed the deal with President-elect Donald Trump during their telephone conversation on Thursday. The Obama administration had agreed to resettle refugees among almost 1,300 asylum seekers held at Australia’s expense on the island nations of Nauru and Papua New Guinea. Another 370 who came to Australia for medical treatment then refused to return to the islands would also be eligible.
“We deal with one administration at a time and there is only one president of the United States at a time,” Turnbull told reporters.
So everyone seems to have known at the time that this was a last-minute way to make a deal with Obama during the waning days of his presidency, and to get around president-elect Trump’s expected objections to the deal.
The refugees seem to have had pretty firm ideas about where they would prefer to go:
Australia pays Nauru and Papua New Guinea to house boat arrivals and has been searching for countries that will resettle them.
Few refugees have accepted offers to resettle in Papua New Guinea and Cambodia because most hope that Australia will eventually take them in.
Any refugee who refuses to go to the U.S. would be given a 20-year visa to stay on Nauru, a tiny impoverished atoll with a population of 10,000 people, Immigration Minister Peter Dutton said.
It’s unclear from that article how many would have been allowed to go to Cambodia had they wanted to do so, or how many actually would have accepted Cambodia as a destination if offered. It seems from this article that Cambodian resettlement was planned to begin with only a very limited number of the refugees and then work up to a larger number.
And there’s this about the incentives created by the deal with Obama:
Refugees who arrive in the future would not be sent to the United States, [Turnbull] said.
“We anticipate that people smugglers will seek to use this agreement as a marketing opportunity to tempt vulnerable people onto these perilous sea journeys,” Turnbull said. “We have put in place the largest and most capable maritime surveillance and response fleet Australia has ever deployed.”
Australian Border Force Commissioner Roman Quaedvlieg said ships had been positioned to turn boats back to Indonesia if asylum seekers attempt to reach Australia in the hope of being sent to the U.S.
We also learn from this NY Times article on November 12 that the majority of the refugees involved are men, as is often the case: “About 410 men, women and children are held on Nauru, and 823 men are held on Manus Island.” I was also trying to get some idea of where the majority of these people are really from, and I found this at the Guardian (an article from just a few days ago):
A specific breakdown of nationalities among those determinations is unavailable, but according to the Australian parliamentary library, by far the largest group of detainees in Australia’s offshore centres are from Iran – one of the seven listed countries.
In figures from 2014 and 2015, Iranians were the dominant cohort on both Manus and Nauru. On Manus there was also a large portion from Iraq and a number from Somalia, both among the seven “countries of concern”.
Because the Manus group is all male, we can assume that the male contingent of the refugee population is largely from Iran, Iraq, and Somalia. I would imagine that the vast majority really are fleeing trouble in their home countries; after all, all three countries have got plenty of trouble. But there certainly could be terrorists among that group, as well. And it’s a population that definitely needs more ideological vetting than the Obama administration was prepared to give it, because there is an excellent chance that quite a few would be terrorism supporters, sharia advocates, and extremely intolerant of various human rights (for women and gay people, to name just two) that are part of Western society
In my quest to find out more about the refugees themselves—are they mostly economic refugees, for example?—I came across this rather amusing tidbit from the Guardian on November 13, 2016, shortly after the deal was first announced:
The Greens initially dismissed the idea [of Australia’s deal with Obama right after the election], concerned about sending people to “Donald Trump’s America”, and continued its demand that people be brought to Australia and settled here.
Better a refugee camp than “Donald Trump’s America,” apparently—although the Greens later changed their minds and decided that Trump’s America would do. As for other countries:
Many asylum seekers and refugees long ago stopped wanting to come to Australia and had written letters to various world leaders pleading for assistance, including to the US, Canada, New Zealand and the Vatican.
Yes, indeed; what about Trudeau’s Canada, where last week the young PM proclaimed the following?:
Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau took a jab at President Donald Trump’s executive order on refugees Saturday, tweeting that Canada will welcome all those fleeing war and terror, regardless of their faith.
“Diversity is our strength,” he wrote, following up by posting photo of himself greeting a young Syrian refugee.
At the time Obama struck his deal with Australia, Trudeau had been Canada’s Prime Minister for a full year. Somehow, in that year, he couldn’t seem to find the time to take in any of the Australian refugees. Or perhaps he couldn’t find the inclination, despite his lofty words.
I’ll close with a quote from Australian Prime Minister Turnbull in a press conference Thursday:
Turnbull reassured reporters that the United States remains a staunch ally.
“I can assure you the relationship is very strong,” he said. “The fact that we received the assurance that we did, the fact that it was confirmed, the very extensive engagement we have with the new administration underlines the closeness of the alliance.”
So, what was this all about, anyway? (That question was rhetorical.)