Deafening silence around Australia-US refugee deal

Ann Deslandes

Towards the end of the Obama administration, Australian Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull struck what he hoped was a momentous, one-off deal: to have refugees currently detained in offshore detention centres vetted for settlement in the United States.

Under the deal, Australia would resettle refugees being held by the US in Costa Rica in exchange for the US resettling refugees being held by Australia in detention centres on Manus Island and Nauru.

The centres, though, have been the target of strong criticisms from the United Nations and refugee advocates for their treatment of refugees. The Guardian has called Australia’s policy of sending refugees to the detention centres “a brutal and obscene piece of self-delusion,” and Amnesty International has called it “a deliberate policy to inflict harm on refugees.” The Australian government, however, persisted with sending any refugees arriving by boat there, regardless of such criticisms. As such, this deal presented an opportunity to alleviate some of the pressures on the centres, and on Australia’s immigration policy.

In May this year, though, The Guardian Australia reported that the approval of US refugee visas for these refugees was being influenced by US President Donald Trump’s so-called “Muslim Ban.” The January 2017 executive order temporarily suspended the entry of refugees to the country and restricts the entry of travellers from majority Muslim countries, subjecting them to additional screening.

The order banned foreign nationals from seven Muslim majority countries for 90 days, prohibiting refugee admissions for 120 days, and suspending Syrian refugee admissions indefinitely.

As The Guardian reported, no people from the majority Muslim countries of Iran or Somalia who were detained on Manus Island or Nauru had been granted the protection of the US. As such, they concluded, it appeared that the refugee swap, bore clear evidence of Trump’s “Muslim ban.”

In reference to The Guardian claim, a spokesperson for the US State Department told TRT World  that there is no ban on admission to the United States as a refugee for any nationality.

They confirmed that the United States is continuing the normal processing associated with admission to the United States of refugees via the US Refugee Admissions Program; following the “enhancements in vetting procedures” implemented under the aforementioned Executive Order (aka The Muslim Ban).  Refugees continue to arrive in the United States, including those that are currently in Nauru and Papua New Guinea. More than 300 refugees have been resettled to date.

A search on the US Government resettlement statistics database revealed that, since The Guardian’s report in May, no person from Iran has been resettled through the US refugee program, while 22 have been resettled from Somalia. However, it is not known whether the 22 from Somalia had been on Manus Island or Nauru. TRT World understands that it is State Department policy not to share individual refugee information due to privacy considerations.

As many Manus and Nauru refugees start a new life in the US, truth is still a casualty of Australian asylum policy. “I am happy to be in the United States, hopeful and motivated for the future,” writes Imran Mohammed, who was detained by Australia on Manus Island for five years. A teenager when he arrived by boat, seeking asylum from Myanmar as a person of the persecuted Rohingya ethnicity; Mohammed says, “I am grateful that the Trump administration honored the agreement reached previously with the Australian government, to accept selected men, women and children from Manus and Nauru.” “But,” he adds, “many people, many of my people, have been left behind” in the island detention camps.

Exactly who has been left behind and why remains obstinately difficult to ascertain. From the Australian side, for some years now, the information about immigration detention has been parsed through incomplete or only partially-sanctioned sources. The information is usually funnelled through stringent government control mechanisms; leaked by employees of the companies contracted to administer and staff the places of detention; documented by advocates and activists who support those in detention; and more recently, posted via smartphone messaging and public social media posts by people detained themselves. From this mix of sources, journalists attempting to report in the public interest have had to estimate what is really going on, often also forced to navigate a politically charged discussion.

Privacy concerns are important, but protecting the privacy of people who have sought asylum from either the US or Australia cannot account for all of the ways in which the truth about their fates has been obscured from independent scrutiny from the beginning of their incarceration to the ‘refugee swap’ deal made between the governments.

The US-Australia refugee swap: To be sure, the deal struck between Australia and the US is, as journalist Kevin Nguyen wrote last year, “a story with major global implications.” But despite the importance of the story, Nguyen notes that, “for journalists, there are significant challenges in obtaining accurate information regarding what is happening on the ground.”

Nguyen works with Storyful, a media company which provides contextual insights and verified content services, and his article was published as Australia was experiencing a particular uptick in attention after the transcript of a phone call between Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull and President Donald Trump discussing the resettlement deal was published by the Washington Post.

Almost a year later, Nguyen’s observation appears to have been borne out in subsequent reporting on Australian immigration detention. In The Guardian report noted above; sources are the detained refugees themselves, and their advocates, specifically Kurdish-Iranian refugee Behrouz Boochani and stalwart activist Ian Rintoul.

Boochani is a journalist and has been detained on Manus Island for five years. He has regularly spoken out about conditions in the detention centres and called his treatment “Institutionalised and … indefinite state violence.” Rintoul is a long-term crusader for social justice and a stalwart of the International Socialist Organisation. A spokesperson for the Refugee Action Coalition for nearly 20 years, he’s a well-established go-to for reporters under pressure. As one reporter told TRT World recently, “Rintoul often seems to be the only one who knows anything.”

Speaking to TRT World, Nguyen says that “activism, whether it’s in Australia or in Papua New Guinea or with stories I’ve covered in the United States, is not something that can be considered reliable at face value. By its nature it’s partisan, emotional and desires a certain outcome, and I often find myself having to discard or dismiss information because they’re spurious and inconsistent or because there is no means to independently verify their claims.” The government has not helped this process, continues Nguyen. “Home Affairs has, across all its incarnations, blatantly obfuscated coverage through bureaucracy, hostile action to a free press, through an utter abuse of language and perhaps most frustratingly, through an abdication of responsibility.” “This is why access is so important. Journalists can’t take anyone on their word, and there’s a certain vindictive kind of brilliance by putting an ocean between us and these centres, and not affording a reporter an opportunity to verify something with their own eyes and ears,” he concluded.

The burden of truth: The prominence of refugees and activists as news sources in informing the Australian and global public about what is happening to people in Australian immigration detention and refugee resettlement processes is entangled with the Australian government’s efforts to control the narrative. Ministerial and departmental spokespeople regularly discredit accounts like Boochani’s and Rintoul’s, accusing detained people of acting up and advocates of coaching them to do so in order to win the public’s sympathy.

For example, it has long been a position of refugee activists that those detained on Nauru and Manus should be brought to mainland Australia in the name of compassion. This very suggestion was demolished by Immigration Minister Peter Dutton last month, who was reported across mainstream media platforms as saying, “it’s essential that people realise that the hard-won success [in fortifying the Australian border] of the last few years could be undone overnight by a single act of compassion in bringing 20 people from Manus to Australia.”

At the same time, journalists have been actively prevented from visiting places of detention on Nauru and Manus Island – denied visas to travel and denied access to places of detention. Boochani and Rintoul may be reliable witnesses to the truth, but their interest in ending immigration detention combined with the deliberate obstruction of independent journalistic verification means their words are easy fodder for the state spokespeople and powerful allied media voices who defend Australia’s hardline border policy.

The Australian government’s focus on preventing even ‘legitimate’ refugees from breaching the island nation’s border appears to be matched by the Trump administration’s repeated calls for deterring entry to the United States via its southern border with Mexico. And there are similar restrictions on journalists seeking to report the movements of those detained while doing so; not to mention parallel practices of removing migrant children from their parents. To be sure, the leaked Turnbull-Trump phone transcript revealed that the US President found the hardline Australian approach to asylum seekers to be admirable.

The Australian Border Force Act, which governs the restrictions on public access to information about immigration detention and refugee processing, requires senior immigration officials to swear an oath or affirmation to the force. In introducing the bill for the act to the Australian Parliament, Immigration Minister Peter Dutton said, “This requirement sets an up-front marker that the government and public expect the highest standards of professionalism and integrity for officers that are exercising significant enforcement powers.” So the Australian public are asked to ‘trust the process’ and be satisfied with minimal detail.

In the meantime, it seems the most important information is coming from those detained on Manus and Nauru, living in the limbo of detention and risking their chances of resettlement, and activists who have an avowedly particular framework for interpreting and reporting facts and/or whose testimony is easily twisted by government controls on refugee discourse. While more than 300 refugees held by Australia have finally found freedom in the US, the fragility, urgency and incompleteness of journalistic sources remains a threat to the resolution of Australia’s asylum problem.



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