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Explainer: Why Australia is worried that Trump won't honour an agreement to accept refugees

Australian Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull struck the deal with President Obama.

THE NEWS EMERGED this morning – with Donald Trump confirming his take on it via Twitter as usual – that the US President had ripped into his Australian counterpart, Malcolm Turnbull, on the phone over a refugee deal struck between the two countries in November.

Canberra and Washington had managed to reach a “one-off” agreement to resettle an unspecified number of the 1,600 people Australia holds in offshore processing centres at Nauru and Papua New Guinea in the US.

Trump’s travel ban announced last week signalled uncertainty for this accord, as many of the people in these centres are Iranian.

Abuse

Australia’s hardline stance on immigrants entering the country, particularly via boat, is heavily linked to incidents such as the Christmas Island boat disaster in 2010, where a boat carrying 90 asylum seekers sank near the Australian island.

Travelling by boat is one of the most common ways refugees attempt to enter Australia, and the government and authorities have taken a hardline stance against this measure, where refugees were denied entry to the country and taken instead to these centres in Papua New Guinea and Nauru.

google maps The tiny island of Nauru is North-East of Australia, with Papua New Guinea just north of the country. Source: Google Maps

Australia faced a sharp backlash after a Guardian investigation into the conditions at these processing centres.

The reports led to scathing criticism of Canberra’s immigration policy.

More than 2,000 incident reports leaked to The Guardian Australia included allegations of asylum-seekers, including children, on Nauru facing assaults, sexual abuse and mental distress.

Australia Asylum Seekers File photo of refugees at a camp on the island of Nauru. Source: Rick Rycroft AP/Press Association Images

The reports allege such incidents as guards threatening a boy with death and only allowing a young woman a longer shower in return for sexual favours.

Mental stress caused by prolonged detention was deemed to be the cause of alleged cases of self-harm, including a woman trying to hang herself and a girl sewing her lips together.

One girl wrote in her school book in 2014 that “she was tired, doesn’t like camp and wants to die”. The report said she wrote: “I want DEATH” and “I need death”.

The Australian government was accused of deliberately ignoring the abuse of refugees, and was eventually forced to close its immigration camp at Papua New Guinea.

Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch led attacks on the conditions at these camps.

The government’s “failure to address serious abuses appears to be a deliberate policy to deter further asylum-seekers from arriving in the country by boat”, they said.

In the face of this Prime Minister Turnbull has maintained a hardline stance on immigration from the outset. This week, he refused to condemn Trump’s travel ban, but said that their immigration policy was non-discriminatory.

“That’s our policy,” Turnbull said. “But our borders are secure. That’s the bottom line.”

Honouring the deal

Australia’s arrangement with the Obama administration followed the emergence of these scandals, and appeared to provide Turnbull with a way to avoid any more political pressure on the matter.

Obama Peru APEC Summit Prime Minister Turnbull shaking hands with former President Obama in November 2016. Source: Pablo Martinez Monsivais AP/Press Association Images

Officials from the US Department of Homeland Security were due to arrive in Australia just after the election before heading to Nauru to determine who will be eligible for the US move.

After Trump had a phone call with Turnbull on 29 January, it initially appeared that the deal was still on, despite the travel ban.

On Monday, Australia announced that Trump will honour the accord struck under his predecessor.

The following day, White House spokesman Sean Spicer confirmed the deal will move forward, with the refugees to be the subject of “extreme vetting”.

“The president,” Spicer said, “in accordance with that deal, to honour what had been agreed upon by the United States government… will go forward.”

These convivial reports have since been undermined by Trump’s tweet, and the reports emerging of the sharp telephone exchange between the pair.

The issue has become a political headache for Turnbull, and this latest message from Trump only heightens the uncertainty.

On the Papua New Guinea island of Manus, asylum seekers are sceptical that they’ll be admitted by the US.

Rohingya refugee Imran Fazal Hoque told the Guardian: “We will not believe it until we see it.

We have stopped getting our hope too high because we don’t want to suffer from extreme depression anymore. However, it is excruciatingly hard to fight against the words like “refugees subject to extreme vetting”.

With Turnbull adamant the deal is still on, and Trump’s hardline stance on immigrants entering the country showing no signs of softening, what will happen to these 1000+ people living in these processing centres remains to be seen.

With reporting from AFP.

Read: A speech by a famed alt-right activist at Berkeley was cancelled after violent protests last night

Read: Trump reportedly tore into Australian PM over ‘dumb’ refugee deal

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Sean Murray

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