Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull of Australia said Sunday that the United States had agreed to take a “substantial” number of refugees currently detained on the Pacific islands of Manus and Nauru. He added Monday that such a transfer will begin only after the inauguration of President-elect Donald Trump in January.
The announcement comes after Australia agreed in September to participate in Washington’s plan for resettling Central American refugees, Prime Minister Turnbull’s government having said it would take people from Guatemala, Honduras, and El Salvador, as well as boosting its annual refugee intake from 5,000 to 18,750. Turnbull at the time said the agreement was “not linked to any other resettlement discussions.”
Whether or not a connection exists, skepticism surrounds the likelihood of a Trump administration honoring an agreement to take in refugees from Australia’s holding facilities, many of whom are Muslims from Iraq, Syria, Afghanistan, and Pakistan. The president-elect has been clear about his anti-immigration stance, particularly when it comes to those of the Muslim faith.
"It looks pretty clear that the resettlement deal was done as a quid pro quo after Australia agreed to resettle Central American refugees," Peter Chen, professor of political science at the University of Sydney, told Reuters.
"But by holding off and starting the process in the expectation that Hillary Clinton would win the US presidency, it gives Trump the ability to reject the deal."
Australia’s position on immigration hardened in July 2013, when a new policy was introduced implementing a refusal to resettle any refugee arriving by boat. Instead, any such arrivals are transferred to the Pacific islands, with the Australian government paying Nauru and Papua New Guinea (of which Manus is a part) to house the asylum seekers.
The Australian Border Force has been successful in preventing any people smuggling operation from landing asylum seekers by boat since July 2014, and they are redoubling their efforts following the latest announcement, lest the possibility of being transferred to the United States acts as a lure. Indeed, to combat this eventuality, Turnbull said that any new arrivals would be ineligible to be a part of this deal.
“The message to the people smugglers and their would-be passengers is very clear,” Turnbull told Sky News Australia. “This deal, this arrangement is one off. It applies only, potentially, to those on Nauru and Manus today.”
Australia has been increasingly keen to empty its facilities on Nauru and Manus, as criticism of the centers has grown, with some referring to them as the country’s equivalent of Guantánamo Bay. A steady stream of alleged human rights violations has been published in the media and from international groups such as Amnesty International and the United Nations Human Rights Commission.
But is the United States likely to ride to the rescue under President Trump? Mark Krikorian, executive director of the Center for Immigration Studies in Washington, thinks not.
"It's so difficult to justify," Mr. Krikorian told Fairfax Media. "I don't expect any Republicans will defend it. I can't see a lot of Democrats defending it either. My sense is that when the word gets out on this, it'll be dead on arrival."
This report includes material from the Associated Press and Reuters.