POLITICS

Who's Telling The Truth Over A Refugee Deal 'Understanding'?

The UNHCR has said one thing. The Turnbull Government has said another.

25/07/2017 12:47 PM AEST | Updated 25/07/2017 12:58 PM AEST
Andrew Meares/Fairfax
Peter Dutton: 'The position of the Coalition Government has been clear and consistent.'

CANBERRA -- The Turnbull Government is directly contradicting the UN's refugee agency UNHCR that there was ever a promise or "clear understanding", arranged in secret, that Australia would resettle some refugees with close family ties to Australia.

On Monday, the UNHCR chief Filippo Grandi broke the confidentiality of several private meetings with the government over details of the US refugee swap deal, in revealing there has been a "clear understanding" that "vulnerable refugees with close family ties in Australia" would ultimately be allowed to settle in Australia.

These, according to Grandi, would be refugees with "serious medical conditions, or who have undergone traumatic experiences, including sexual violence," but the UN High Commissioner for Refugees said he'd "recently been informed by Australia that it refuses to accept even these refugees."

It's been Coalition policy since Tony Abbott was elected in 2013 that no refugee boat arrival will be allowed to resettle in Australia, and that's been reinforced by the Immigration Minister Peter Dutton on Tuesday in a statement.

"The position of the Coalition Government has been clear and consistent: those transferred to RPCs will never settle in Australia."

Peter Dutton spokeswoman

Despite various media requests, the minister has not been available for interview on Tuesday, leaving the Foreign Minister Julie Bishop to address the UNHCR's statement.

"The Turnbull Government's position has been clear and consistent throughout and that is that those who seek to come to Australia illegally, who pay people smugglers that are criminal networks and have then gone to regional processing centre also not be resettled in Australia," she told reporters in Canberra.

"That's been our clear and consistent position throughout."

Asked if the UNHCR is "making up" claims of an understanding, Bishop was firm.

"I'm not casting aspersions," she said. "I'm saying that my understanding is that the Australian Government's position has been clear and consistent throughout and I've not heard any changes to those arrangements.

"If people seek to arrive illegally, if they pay criminal smuggling networks, they will not be resettled in Australia."

So one side is saying one thing. The other side completely another. Deal or no deal.

The UNHCR is not a tiny, insignificant agency that is easily dismissed. It is a body of the United Nations that is currently dealing with the biggest refugee crisis since World War II.

Australia is a proud member nation of the United Nations. It was recently had a temporary seat on the UN Security Council and is in the box seat for a temporary spot on the UN Human Right Council.

So which is it?

The extraordinary UNHCR statement came out not long after the marking of the fourth anniversary of the then Labor Government's controversial announcement of a return to offshore immigration processing and detention.

In the release, Grandi attacked Australia over its treatment of vulnerable refugees and urged the government immediately end to the "harmful practice" of offshore processing and offer solutions to its victims.

"There is a fundamental contradiction in saving people at sea, only to mistreat and neglect them on land," he said.

"There is no doubt these vulnerable people, already subject to four years of punishing conditions, should be reunited with their families in Australia. This is the humane and reasonable thing to do."

He said the UNHCR has "no other choice" but to endorse the relocation of all refugees on Papua New Guinea and Nauru to the United States, even those with close family members in Australia.

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