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With the US–Australia refugee deal in chaos, the real victims on Manus and Nauru live in anguished hope. By Martin McKenzie-Murray.

Manus refugees await US resettlement deal

Iranian refugee Ben Moghimi praying on Manus Island.
Credit: Behrouz Boochani

Ben Moghimi is an Iranian refugee. He has been on Manus Island for more than three years. He tells me his nightly ritual in the camp is to pray – for his “brothers and sisters” on Manus and Nauru, for his family in Iran, and for those traumatised in Syria. “I ask Jesus Christ to give them peace in their soul.”

This week, in the wake of Malcolm Turnbull’s announcements about the refugee settlement deal with the United States, he sent me a brief but uncertain note: “Let’s see what happens. I really want to go to USA because I love USA and I am Christian.”

In a long note he sent to me on New Year’s Day, Ben had written: “I have readied my mind for new things in the new year. I have made more space in my heart for people who truly care. I will never give up. Because 2017 is the year of my freedom and my brothers and sisters on Manus and Nauru. I truly believe new year will bring me luck and positive things.” 

The note continued with an assessment of the year just gone: “I can honestly say this year – it’s enough for me, I can’t tolerate any more. This year more things have fallen apart, and with them little pieces of me... We are all political hostages. I have broken so much and sometimes I have cried in my single cell... But I will never give up. I trust with all my heart Jesus Christ has my back he will never let me break down. He is the only owner of my mind and body. New Year approaches me with new hopes, aspirations and commitments that I need to carry out to fulfill my dreams. ‘New Year’ – whenever I hear these words I remember about new year celebrations, gifts, parties, wishing people around us at this amazing moment with all their friends... But in this concentration camp our gifts are sleeping pills and antidepressants.”

After three years, those in our offshore detention camps have learnt to distrust the news. On their phones, it comes in waves. The waves are many and contradictory – bringing hope and despair; clarity and confusion. The sum is a permanent disorientation. Some remain hopeful; others are numb, cynical. In these past two months, you’d understand if detainees turned off their phones – they have brought the announcement of a surprise resettlement deal struck with the Obama administration, but just days later news that the deal appeared doomed by Donald Trump’s election victory. Then, in this past week alone, there came news of President Trump’s executive order temporarily suspending immigration of refugees and the acceptance of nationals from seven largely Muslim countries. The deal seemed dead. Then on Sunday, in a strangely subdued announcement, Malcolm Turnbull said Trump had confirmed that he would, in fact, honour the agreement. This itself turned out to be a rather wishful account of Trump’s position.

“There’s no one mood,” explains Ian Rintoul, of the Refugee Action Coalition. Rintoul is in constant contact with those in the camps. “Some people remain entirely disbelieving. Their day-to-day mistreatment remains the same. For some others, they are still hopeful but are still extremely suspicious that [the deal] would apply to them.”

It is a strange time in the Manus compound – stranger than usual. The detention of these thousand or so men, languishing remotely in the Pacific, has been the cause of recurring controversies. Now their fate is being considered by the president of the United States, and, government sources tell me, used as a bargaining chip by Trump, who will pocket it for future negotiations with Australia.

On Monday, Amir, another young Iranian man on Manus, tells me: “The latest that I am aware is that Trump is going to honour the deal which has been made by the previous government. We don’t get any updates by the officials here. We hear things from the grapevine of rumours. America is a place where we can rebuild our lives. [All we’ve been told is] as simple as, ‘Americans will come and process you and once it’s done you are gone.’ Very brief, always without details. It’s quite a culture within the department to keep us in dark.”

But this was Monday. Confusion and contradiction rumbled on. The White House press secretary, Sean Spicer, confirmed earlier this week that the Australian deal would be honoured, albeit with unelaborated on “extreme vetting” procedures, before the ABC was told by a US government source that, in fact, Trump had not yet made up his mind.

A report in The Washington Post made clear that Turnbull’s 25-minute call was supposed to have gone for an hour. Having spoken earlier to the leaders of Russia, Germany, France and Japan, Trump reportedly told Prime Minister Turnbull, “This was the worst call by far.”

At time of writing, multiple men on Manus say they have not been given any updates about the deal by the Australian Border Force. Throughout the week, detainees share with me the contradictory news they are reading online. They don’t know what to think. “I heard some kids in Nauru attempted suicide after Trump’s executive orders, which was quite disturbing for me,” Amir tells me. “Generally guys are feeling numb as they have heard many different kinds of news during the past four years and nothing has indeed happen. Thoughts of suicide can’t get off my head.”

Ian Rintoul says the suicide attempt was made by a 19-year-old Iranian man. “It was a day after Trump’s executive order, and tragically just hours before it was announced that [the deal] might still be on.” 

 Back in November, after news of the US deal was announced, Australian officials gave detainees brochures from the US Department of Homeland Security that explained their screening process. They describe four stages: 1. Registration and data collection; 2. Security checks by multiple intelligence agencies; 3. An interview; and 4. Biometric security checks, the results of which are checked against FBI and defence databases. The brochures were something tangible. But questions remain about who would be eligible, how long the vetting would take, and whether they would remain in offshore detention for its duration. Of course, the larger question today is whether resettlement will happen at all.

Earlier this week, a former executive of the immigration department gave me some thoughts on the deal. Assuming a decision had been made by Trump to honour it, the source said: “Like all things Trump … I think it reasonable to assume that details are yet to be worked through. I suspect DFAT might be taking the lead at this stage in terms of implementation. The sticky bits will come when the US officials work through screening processes that satisfy admittance to the US. This will be at a higher level than what has been done to date for those on Manus and Nauru. This won’t be quick. They will gather info, then disappear. The bar will be very high and some of what they will want to verify will be very difficult to do.

“I’m not sure where this will leave some of these folk. I doubt the new [US] administration is in ‘benefit of the doubt’ mode. This is certainly the ASIO experience when they were required to vet those found to be refugees before they settled. Details [of the deal] being the key. No wonder Turnbull is looking and sounding like a hollow man.”

Trump's immigration bans

Last week, President Trump continued his flurry of executive orders. A leaked draft of one, on religious expression, asserts that: “Americans and their religious organisations will not be coerced by the federal government into participating in activities that violate their conscience.” To aid this, the order proposes to exempt a broad range of organisations from anti-discrimination law – or, to put it another way, it seeks to remove legal protections from discrimination. Some lawyers who have seen the draft have expressed concern that the constitution itself may not so sweepingly protect religious expression. And there is legal alarm that the order would encourage the breaching of multiple federal laws without a requirement to prove that religious expression has been “substantially burdened”. 

The executive order dictating a temporary ban on immigration, and the indefinite cessation of admission for Syrian refugees, caused immediate and global confusion. While the intention of the order should not have been surprising – Trump frequently spoke of Muslim deportation, immigration bans and “extreme vetting” during his campaign – its recklessly hasty authorship, made with little to no consultation with the departments of justice, state or homeland security, plunged customs officials into chaos. American airports receive more than 300,000 arrivals a day, and without warning their staff were charged with applying a dramatic and legally dubious executive order. Families were separated. American residents were barred from re-entering their home country. International censure and legal injunctions followed, while protests engulfed airports and civic squares across the country. The US Department of State acquired a thousand signatures for its memorandum of dissent. 

Diplomats told me of their alarm. A senior aviation source described to me serious confusion for their staff and customers alike, and of urgently seeking clarification from a government that, early in the week at least, seemed almost as uncertain as they were. The status of Australians whose dual citizenship included one of the seven banned countries was initially unclear. Foreign Minister Julie Bishop announced that diplomats would be lobbying the US government for an exemption for Australian dual-nationals; the prime minister announced the following morning that the exemption had been successfully sought. But this apparently simple development was later confused by White House statements indicating that the executive order was never intended to ban dual-nationals, provided the passport on which they travelled was not one of the banned seven. This contradicted the announcement of an Australia-specific exemption. Government sources told me the confusion was a natural consequence of a calamitously rushed order, and its inconsistent and confused application.

“It’s working out very nicely,” Trump said this week. “You see it in the airports, you see it all over. It’s working out very nicely and we are going to have a very, very strict ban and we are going to have extreme vetting, which we should have had in this country for many years.”

The acting US attorney-general, Sally Yates, did not think it was working out very nicely, and in a statement directed the Justice Department against defending the executive order. “My responsibility is to ensure that the position of the Department of Justice is not only legally defensible, but is informed by our best view of what the law is after consideration of all the facts,” she wrote. “In addition, I am responsible for ensuring that the positions we take in court remain consistent with this institution’s solemn obligation to always seek justice and stand for what is right. At present, I am not convinced that the defence of the Executive Order is consistent with these responsibilities nor am I convinced that the Executive Order is legal.”

Yates was immediately sacked by Trump, the White House describing her direction as an act of betrayal. While Trump’s choice for attorney-general, Senator Jeff Sessions, awaits confirmation, a temporary replacement, already confirmed under Obama, has been appointed. 

Turnbull did not join the Western chorus of censure, which comprised Britain, Canada, France, Germany and other allies. After his phone call with Trump, Turnbull unconvincingly said the US would honour the refugee deal. It was supposedly a victory, but Turnbull was hardly triumphant. He spoke reservedly, with little detail. There was a discrepancy between the announcement and the mood in which it was expressed. This hinted at a simple fact: that the fate of the deal still hinged on Trump’s caprice swinging the right way. The leaked detail of the phone call now confirms it. 

Those critical of Turnbull’s reticence, but who wish for the deal to be honoured, can choose just one of those outcomes. Other critics, notably the Greens, argued that this was a false choice given the Australian government could settle offshore detainees here – highly unlikely given the government’s insistence this will never happen. 

This week, The Australian reported that a key section of the executive order, one allowing for exemptions for existing international agreements, was inserted after Turnbull’s insistence. In other words, it was included as a specific recognition of the resettlement deal. “When I have frank advice to give to an American president,” Turnbull said this week, “I give it privately, as good friends should, as wise prime ministers do, when they want to ensure they are best able to protect Australians and Australians’ national interest. Others can engage in commentary. I don’t comment on American policy publicly.”

But we now learn that, behind Turnbull’s discretion, Trump is reportedly furious about the deal and doesn’t see how it would benefit the US.   

US-Australia relations

Government sources this week mused anxiously about what Trump meant for US–Australian relations, especially in the context of the US’s increasingly volatile relations with China. The historic relationship, formalised by the ANZUS treaty and our trusted role in the “Five Eyes” intelligence arrangement, is otherwise cemented culturally and historically. It has been a largely uncomplicated fixture of Australian diplomacy, if at times a source of irritation for China. But now, sources tell me, the relationship is uncertain, subject to its unpredictable leader, a man who appears indifferent to longstanding liberal alliances. 

Sources wondered what the parameters for Turnbull’s discretion were, and what the threshold for censure was. Historic appeals to the partnership were still vital, but many wondered if they could be sustained under a US president who appeared so contemptuous of history and so nakedly transactional in his approach to foreign affairs.

What was suggested to me was that sometimes “special relationships” with the US were not so special that all members felt unconstrained to criticise, and I was given as an example Australian and British credulity regarding the US intelligence on Iraq’s weapons of mass destruction. But this didn’t mean, I was told, that there wasn’t a foundational and mutual appreciation of Western alliances and institutions formed after 1945 as a co-operative architecture designed to quell the formation of isolated and competitive blocs that had previously given rise to world wars. Now, they say, the participation of the central figure in this architecture is uncertain.

Experienced figures in international diplomacy told me that serious reprisal against Australia by the US was always unlikely. Now, Trump’s view of the world as a zero-sum competition – a mercantilist whose economic policies resemble the beggar-thy-neighbour orthodoxy of the 1930s – means that economic or alternative forms of reprisal can’t be discounted. Trump’s retrograde views on trade, his bellicosity and capricious temperament, leave reprisal on the table – and this unpredictability serves as a narrow strategic advantage. Narrow, in that it discounts the possibility of the comparative advantage of liberal policies. Turnbull’s reluctance to publicly criticise Trump should be seen in this context.

The thinking had echoes with a strategic paper published in the past fortnight by Ashley Townshend, a Research Fellow at the United States Studies Centre at the University of Sydney. Townshend details Trump’s “Asia team” and the difficulties the Australian government may have with Trump’s foreign policy in the region. “Canberra,” he writes, “will have to get used to a degree of uncertainty in Washington’s Asia policy due to possible tensions both inside Trump’s Asia team and with the rest of his cabinet.”

The disagreements, Townshend argues, will revolve around at least three policy areas that Trump has signalled regarding China: tariffs against Chinese goods; diplomatic recognition of Taiwan; and an increased military presence in the region, including “freedom-of-navigation” exercises in the South China Sea.

Australia appears stuck in the middle, between our largest trading partner and the US. This isn’t new, but the disruptive influence of Trump is. “It is in Australia’s interest to support the US military in safeguarding Asia’s rules-based order, provided US forces continue to play a stabilising role,” Townshend writes. “Yet whether or not specific requests are in Australia’s interests, Canberra will find it difficult to foster public support for US–Australia security co-operation under a president that 66 per cent of Australians oppose.

“By adopting tough policies against China on most bilateral issues at once, Trump will create more, not less, volatility in US–China ties. This is contrary to Australia’s interest in a constructive major power relationship between its two most important foreign partners and may be destabilising for the entire region.

“Other American allies – like Japan, South Korea and Singapore – will face the same predicament and, like Australia, could be asked by the Trump administration to support policies that do not align with their priorities or factor in domestic sensitivities. To offset these risks, Canberra should clarify its position on issues like Taiwan, Chinese trade practices, and US basing in Australia prior to possible requests by the [Trump administration].”

So far, this has not been done. There is some wisdom in Turnbull’s reticence, but it is far from adequate. We have entered a strange and dangerous period – a period where the US president’s most trusted adviser, a self-described “Leninist” who said he wanted to “destroy the state”, has been historically empowered.

Manus confusion

On Manus Island, Ben waits to find out what this means. For all he has experienced these past few years – his inner life is now a heady mix of faith and despair – even he could not have anticipated the surreal circus that is now deciding his fate. In the new year, confusion and contradiction have only accelerated, and not just for those who remain in our distant camps.

On Thursday afternoon, a few hours after The Washington Post’s story, Trump made a statement on Twitter, his first attributable remarks on the Turnbull deal. “Do you believe it?” he wrote. “The Obama Administration agreed to take thousands of illegal immigrants from Australia. Why? I will study this dumb deal!”

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on Feb 4, 2017 as "‘I really want to go to USA. I love USA’". Subscribe here.

Martin McKenzie-Murray
is The Saturday Paper’s chief correspondent.