Two dozen refugees held by Australia are on their way to the United States under a deal worked out by the Obama administration. The first of as many as 1,250 asylum-seekers the Obama administration agreed to accept boarded a flight on Thursday and were head to Los Angeles. The Obama administration concluded what President Donald Trump later called a “dumb deal” to take the mostly-Muslim refugees in exchange for Australia accepting refugees from Central America.

Obama's 'dumb deal'

In January, following his inauguration, the contents of a private conversation between Trump and Australian Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull was revealed by The Washington Post. Trump told Turnbull, "I think it is a horrible deal, a disgusting deal that I would have never made," adding, "As far as I am concerned, that is enough Malcolm. I have had it."

The Trump administration announced on Wednesday its plans to reduce the total number of refugees that the U.S. will accept next year to 45,000. Last week, Turnbull said in a video address, "I thank the president and the United States for honoring the deal." Turnbull added,  "Around 50 refugees from [Papua New Guinea] and Nauru will be accepted in this first group."

Australian refugee camp, Manus Island

Australia’s government says that its policy discourages smugglers and asylum-seekers from trying to reach Australia by boat. Turnbull said in his video that this resettlement of refugees to the United States "is a one-off. And it's available only to those found to be refugees who are currently in [Papua New Guinea] and Nauru. And is of course subject to the United States' own extreme vetting mandated by the president."

"Anyone who comes by boat will be turned back," Turnbull said. "They will not be settled in Australia and they will not be settled in the United States."

Bangladesh, Iran, Myanmar, Somalia, and Sri Lanka

This week between 22 and 25 men left an all-male detention center on Papua New Guinea's Manus Island. On Wednesday, 27 men and women left the second camp, which is on the tiny island nation of Nauru. They are coming from Bangladesh, Iran, Myanmar, Somalia, and Sri Lanka, according to Refugee Action Coalition. The Australian human rights group announced in a statement, "They are being sent to live (some with relatives) in many different states including, Arizona, Texas, California, Oregon and New York." According to The New York Times, a State Department source confirmed that 54 approved refugees would be traveling to the United States soon.

Approximately 1,780 of the 2,000 people currently held on Manus Island and Nauru were determined to be refugees under a 1951 international refugees convention, to which Australia is a signatory. They have been found to have a “well-founded fear of persecution” in their home countries. They cannot be returned there and are legally owed protection. Among them are Sudanese. The former Sudan has broken into a Muslim-controlled north and a largely Christian southern republic. The two remain at war, while Christians in the north remain persecuted. Some refugees come from Myanmar, where the Buddhist majority and the Rohingya Muslim minority are engaged in a civil war, forcing 400,000 into flight.

Australia has been criticized for its policy of sending seaborne asylum-seekers to one of the two detention centers. No person, no asylum seeker who attempts to reach Australia by boat can ever be resettled in Australia, even if they are found to be a genuine refugee, according to a 2013 policy. According to Refugee Action Coalition, there are more than 1,700 people still being held on Manus and Nauru. Human Rights Watch and Amnesty International claimed last year that refugees on Nauru face "severe abuse, inhumane treatment, and neglect." The two advocacy groups claim that the refugees "face neglect by health workers," are denied medical care, and "suffer overwhelming despair — self-harm and suicide attempts are frequent." Some of the refugees have been in the camps for as many as five years. Some are children.

The Australian government plans to close the camp on Manus Island camp by the end of October. There are no plans to close the facility at Nauru.

'Armani' refugees

Australian Immigration minister Peter Dutton has disputed descriptions of the conditions at refugee camps. On Thursday, he said that Australian has “been taken for a ride” by refugee advocates. Dutton labeled the detainees as “economic refugees,” in a conversation with Sydney radio host Ray Hadley. Photos of the departing detainees showed that they were well-dressed and sporting luxury brands. “They’re economic refugees, they got on a boat, paid a people-smuggler a lot of money, and somebody once said to me that we’ve got the world’s biggest collection of Armani jeans and handbags up on Nauru waiting for people to collect it when they depart.”

Dutton told 2GB radio that many of the detainees had not come from conflictive areas but were instead merely seeking economic benefits. He added that they had received “an enormous amount of support” from Australian taxpayers for a long time. “We have been taken for a ride, I believe, by a lot of the advocates and people within Labour and the Greens who want you to believe this is a terrible existence,” Dutton said. Speaking to the photos of the departing refugees, Dutton added, “These photos demonstrate otherwise. People have seen other photos in recent weeks of those up on Manus out enjoying themselves outside this centre, by the beach and all the rest of it.”

Dutton predicted that once the detainees leave Manus Island and Nauru, “they’ll start to tell a very different story about how it wasn’t that bad.” He said, “There is a very different scenario up on Nauru and Manus than people want you to believe.”

The four years of Australia’s second iteration of offshore detention, has cost as much as nearly $8 billion. 



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Martin Barillas is a former US diplomat and the editor of Spero News.

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