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Where The Devil Is The Detail In Turnbull's Refugee Deal

Without those questions being answered, it is impossible to know whether this is a welcome development or an exercise in cynicism.

14/11/2016 9:48 AM AEDT | Updated 14/11/2016 9:48 AM AEDT
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There is a lot we still don't know about Australia's deal with the U.S. -- including how many refugees will be accepted.

Australia has announced an agreement with the United States in relation to refugees presently held on Nauru and Manus. In announcing the agreement, Prime Minister Turnbull and Immigration Minister Dutton were careful to avoid giving any significant detail of the arrangement. For example, they did not say how many people would be accepted by the USA and they did not say on what terms refugees would be accepted by the USA. They did say that the arrangement would not be available for anyone who arrives in Australia in the future seeking asylum.

They did not say whether the resettlement arrangement was contingent upon Labor supporting the lifetime visa ban legislation presently before the Senate, although he criticised Labor for opposing it in the lower house.

It is difficult to understand why it would be contingent on a lifetime visa ban, unless the USA required it. New Zealand has taken the position that it would not tolerate having two classes of citizens: those who can travel to Australia, and those who cannot.

But New Zealand citizens can travel to Australia without a visa, which US citizens cannot do, so it is hard to imagine why USA would care whether the lifetime visa ban legislation passes the Senate or not: US citizens have to apply for a visa to come to Australia anyway, so the New Zealand objection of two classes of citizens would not apply. There is no sensible reason why a plan for USA to resettle refugees presently held on Nauru or Manus should be contingent on the lifetime visa ban legislation.

Like Australia, the USA resettles people already assessed as refugees. In the USA, the annual quota of offshore resettlement places is fixed by the President from year to year. Turnbull and Dutton were not able to say whether the arrangement would still apply when Donald Trump is inaugurated as President in January. President-elect Trump has expressed unequivocal anti-Muslim views: in late 2015 he called for a "total and complete shutdown of Muslims entering the United States".

Prime Minister Turnbull made it clear that any detainee who does not accept resettlement in USA will have to return to their country of origin; and any detainee who has been assessed as a refugee and who does not accept resettlement in USA will probably have to remain in Nauru indefinitely. Mr Turnbull announced that Australia is "in the final stages of negotiation with Nauru" to persuade it to offer 20-year visas.

The announcement on 13 November left a number of important questions unanswered. Without those questions being answered, it is impossible to know whether this is a welcome development or an exercise in cynicism.

We need to know how many people will be offered resettlement. We need to know whether Muslims will be accepted by USA as part of the arrangement. It is an important consideration, given Donald Trump's express hostility to Muslims. If resettlement was offered to five non-Muslim refugees on Manus, the entire exercise would be exposed as a cynical attempt to defuse an increasingly embarrassing Australian policy. If, on the other hand, the arrangement was available to all 1800 detainees on Nauru and Manus, it would seem to be a welcome development. So far, it's too early to tell.

Mr Turnbull's announcement was interesting in other ways. He said:

"We have put in place the largest and most capable maritime surveillance and response fleet Australia has ever deployed. Any people smuggling boats that attempt to reach Australia will be intercepted and turned back. Australia's border protection policy has not changed. It is resolute, it is unequivocal: those who seek to come to Australia with people smugglers will not be admitted to Australia," and;

"We have significantly reinforced the security of our borders."

These statements are interesting because they fall back on the old lie: that mistreatment of boat people is an exercise in "protecting" our borders. He later referred to boat people who come to Australia "unlawfully". That is the other element of the government's dishonesty about boat people. People who arrive in Australia seeking to be protected from persecution do not break any law. And we do not need to be protected from them.

Australia is a signatory to the Refugees Convention (1951). It was the world's response to the chilling fact that, during the 1930s, Jews fleeing Nazi Germany were turned away from many countries where they sought a safe place to live.

An essential purpose of the Refugees Convention was to spread the load of refugee movement, so as to give substance to Article 14 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (1948), which declares the right of every person to seek asylum in any country they can reach. By taking steps to prevent asylum seekers reaching Australia, we are in effect denying that right. By seeking to justify those steps with the language of "illegals" and "border protection", politicians like Turnbull and Dutton are denying that right by lying to the Australian public: they are seeking to persuade us that closing our borders to refugees is a laudable thing. It is not laudable: it is heartless and dishonest.

Mr Turnbull also said:

"We anticipate that people smugglers will seek to use this agreement as a marketing opportunity to tempt vulnerable people onto this perilous sea journey."

This facile observation overlooks a basic fact about people-smuggling: it is wholly demand-driven. Refugees do not need to be lured by the prospect of resettlement: they use people smugglers because the perils of the journey look less terrifying than the persecution they seek to escape.

Mr Turnbull criticised Mr Shorten for rejecting the government's proposed lifetime visa ban. He said this was a mark of Mr Shorten yielding to the left wing of the Labor party: an odd charge to make, given that Mr Turnbull's present stance is a mark of his capitulation to the hard-right of his own party.

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