If President Donald Trump follows through on his bluster and cans the refugee deal with Australia, it would be a disaster -- not just for those poor souls on Manus Island and Nauru who now fear their one glimmer of hope is being snatched away from them, but for Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull, whose leadership is already under fire before the parliamentary year even starts.
The main priority here is the fate of those people in Australia's shadowy off-shore detention network. There are approximately 2000 people, a combination of asylum seekers awaiting their refugee determination and those found to be legitimate refugees. The vast majority of the groups on Manus and Nauru have been deemed genuine refugees, legitimately fleeing persecution or conflict. It would be from this group, many of whom have been in Australian-run facilities in the Pacific for years on end, that the group to go to America would be chosen from -- genuine refugees who have been vetted, checked and approved, not "illegal immigrants" as Trump has repeatedly claimed (on Twitter and in public engagements) in recent days.
Why are they going to America, if they've been found to be genuine refugees? Because the government has given as iron-clad a promise as they possibly can that such asylum seekers -- 'illegal maritime arrivals', in the government lexicon -- will never enter Australia. Last year, the government put forward laws that would stop unauthorised people who attempted to enter Australia by boat from coming to Australia ever again, even on business or vacation trips. Australia's world-infamous hard-line immigration policy means government will not bring them here, they've made that clear.
But Australia's policy of mandatory detention has drawn outrage worldwide, with reports from the detention facilities -- deaths, sickness, injury, sexual assault, protests, even refugees self-immolating and attempting suicide -- becoming a millstone around the government's neck in recent years. Resettlement deals with countries like Cambodia have blown up. Something needed to happen and the deal with the U.S., where Australia would take Central American refugees in exchange for America taking up to 1250 of the vetted refugees on Manus and Nauru, was trumpeted as a big win by Turnbull. It was a big win, a well-negotiated deal which almost certainly helps Australia more than the U.S. - that's maybe why Trump called it "the worst deal ever".
"We have demonstrated we can secure Australia's borders. We've demonstrated we can source and provide alternative resettlement options. Those are the results," Turnbull boasted of the deal at the time.
The confusion and conflicting messages from the U.S. have thrown a spanner in the works of what Turnbull still considers a done deal. White House press secretary Sean Spicer, the U.S. State Department and the U.S. embassy in Canberra have stated in recent days that the deal is definitely on; Trump himself, and quotes to the ABC from other White House sources, say the deal is still being considered. Many are speculating that Trump's personal, vocal opposition to the deal is something of a tantrum at not being able to unpick the deal his predecessor Barack Obama agreed to, or signalling to his rabid home fanbase -- who support Trump's restrictions on immigration and refugees -- that he is only accepting the deal grudgingly. That full argument is well-outlined here by Joe Hildebrand, but the uncertainty is damaging for both the 2000-odd people on Manus and Nauru, and the PM himself.
For the asylum seekers and refugees, the possible scuppering of the deal is the latest disappointment. Many of them have been there for years, living in poor conditions, targeted and harassed by local Manusians and Nauruans who do not appreciate their homes having been turned into detention camps. So far they've been given the choice of staying where they are, going back where they came from, or resettling in nations like Cambodia -- the possibility of settling in a first-world country like America would have been a dream for them, a dream which now looks to be in peril.
"A few days ago we heard about Trump calling Turnbull. Everyone was happy and positive but now they destroy our hope," a refugee on Manus told The Huffington Post Australia.
"From beginning we didn't believe this deal because we know Australian government are lying to everyone and killing us."
If the U.S. deal blows up, there is little alternative in sight for those refugees. The government would likely pursue similar refugee deals with other countries, but they've not had much luck so far. Their future seems uncertain, consigned to their island homes for the foreseeable future.
But for Malcolm Turnbull, losing the refugee deal he crowed about would be a true body blow to his Prime Ministership, adding to a phalanx of problems he is already struggling to fend off before the parliamentary year even begins. Turnbull's Liberal-National coalition holds a one-seat majority in the Australian parliament, and while once wildly popular, his poll numbers are falling; if an election were held today, the Coalition would lose, according to polling agencies. Even ex-prime ministers are piling on the pressure.
On his left, the Greens and Labor are calling for immediate change to the detention system as well as reforming of the political donations and parliamentary expense and allowance system. On his right, from within his own party, Turnbull is under fire for being too far left on issues like marriage equality, the environment and energy. He's also fending off hints from Cory Bernardi and George Christensen that they would break out on their own and ditch the Coalition unless their conservative demands were met.
Turnbull is also dealing with the fallout from Sussan Ley's expense scandal, having to sack her and shuffle his frontbench, and his own issues for keeping secret his $1.75 million donation to the Coalition's re-election bid, and only revealing the number after a day of sustained criticism.
Parliament doesn't even start until Tuesday and Turnbull is already facing more problems than he'd like to deal with in an entire year. Losing a well-negotiated deal with the U.S. within weeks of the new administration coming to power, and being chucked back to square one on his Manus and Nauru problems, would be a significant blow to his hopes to make 2017 more successful than 2016.
After loudly trumpeting the deal with Obama as a big win, Turnbull can't let the refugee deal fall apart. It is why he had to basically grin and bear the tongue-lashing from the new president, and perhaps why he has kept mum on Trump's controversial travel restrictions; he's hoping beyond hope that Trump doesn't blow it up in his face, and is trying as hard as he can not to give the new president any more reason to sweep "the worst deal ever" away.
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