With details unresolved, refugees on Manus and Nauru are bringing cautious optimism to talk of US resettlement. By Martin McKenzie-Murray.

‘Our hope is destroyed after every good news’

Iranian-born Amir, 23, has been detained on Manus Island for just over three years.

Hell. Limbo. Purgatory. Its occupants have referred to the Manus detention centre in uniformly dark ways these past years. But last weekend, within the perimeters of the barbed cyclone fencing, there was some strange and wonderful news – the men might be going to America. Immigration officials had briefed them – vaguely, some felt – on the deal Australia had struck with the United States to resettle them there. The men began excitedly discussing the deal, but most were heavy with questions. Some had difficulty sleeping, so piquant was the mix of hope and uncertainty – each knew that Trump had just been elected the next president of the United States. 

“US is a reasonable country that refugees will be able to rebuild their lives,” Amir tells me. “But, still, because this place has systematically destroyed people’s hope after every good news, so people decided not to be excited [about] such news until it actually happens.”

Amir is 23, an Iranian who fled Tehran after he converted to Christianity. He has been living in the Manus compound for just over three years. “No one is sure of anything so we can’t be happy, we can’t be upset…” he says. “People in here need sanctuary. They need somewhere safe to rebuild their lives and be in peace and start healing.”

Unlike others I speak with, Amir has greater equanimity regarding a Trump presidency. “We cannot be sure
of what would exactly happen,” he tells me. “Whatever we hear is all from the media. We need to see who he actually is and we better not judge people before [we] know them.” 

Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull was addressing the press at the Maritime Border Command in Canberra when he announced the deal. “I can now confirm that the government has reached a further third country resettlement arrangement for refugees presently in the regional processing centres. The agreement is with the United States. It is a one-off agreement. It will not be repeated,” he said.

“It is only available to those currently in the regional processing centres. It will not be available to any persons who seek to reach Australia in the future. Our priority is the resettlement of women, children and families. This will be an orderly process. It will take time. It will not be rushed. It will be administered with the UN High Commissioner for Refugees and we’ll continue to engage with the UNHCR on its implementation.”

The crucial word there is “implementation” – the UN’s refugee commission will now work with the US government on processing, but the commission was not consulted during the deal’s negotiations. Regardless, the plan found the UNHCR’s approval. “[The] open-ended detention in Papua New Guinea and Nauru has caused immense harm to vulnerable people who have sought asylum since 2013,” the UNHCR said in a brief statement. “In this context, UNHCR welcomes the announcement … The full details of the agreement are not yet known, and UNHCR is not a party to it.” 

A former executive of the Department of Immigration told me that, unsurprisingly, relations between the government and UNHCR were not strong. “There’s a lot of views inside government that UNHCR has been overly critical. But they’re a pragmatic organisation, and the US well and truly fits the bill for durable settlement.” 

Talks have taken almost a year and have been led, sources tell me, by the Department of Foreign Affairs. They began in January, when Turnbull first discussed the prospect with President Barack Obama in Washington. Negotiations and preparations were kept secret, so secret that some senior bureaucrats in the Department of Immigration, responsible for settlement policy, were unaware they were happening. 

In principle, it is an extraordinary outcome for the refugees who have languished on Nauru and Manus for more than three years. However, many details remain unclear and there is doubt about whether the deal will survive Trump’s inauguration in January. Last December, the US president-elect vowed to entirely halt Muslim immigration; after the Orlando nightclub massacre in June this year, Trump revised himself saying he would prevent the immigration of peoples from “areas of the world where there is a proven history of terrorism”. 

There is speculation within immigration policy circles that Trump’s surprise victory forced the deal’s premature announcement. The assumption that a Clinton administration would honour, or continue, the agreement suddenly evaporated – now there was an urgency to begin processing applicants, and solidify public expectations, to ward against a potential Trump reversal. 

The Republican candidate’s victory also means there is an unwinnable race against time. Trump will be sworn in as president on January 20, leaving insufficient time for the US to run its health and security checks against applicants. The secretary of the Department of Immigration and Border Protection, Mike Pezzullo, said as much in a senate hearing this week. “Not everyone will be resettled by the 20th of January, 2017,” he said. “We can state that with absolute certainty … We are proceeding on the basis that the US government honours its obligation.”

Even hypothetically assuming the applicants could be successfully vetted before the inauguration, this would still not guarantee their settlement in the US. We simply don’t know what a Trump administration would do. 

It’s a dizzying position for the 1600 or so asylum seekers and refugees to find themselves in. Wasting in limbo for three years, their mental health much deteriorated, the bright and unexpected prospect of US settlement emerged in the same week a Trump victory threatened to extinguish it. The circumstance is theatrically cruel, and the half dozen men on Manus I spoke with this week all talked of dampening their expectations. It isn’t ingratitude – the thought of American settlement thrills them – but they know there are few details, know Trump is president-elect, and know the damage of spurned hope.

1 . Cautious anticipation

Behrouz Boochani is a Kurdish journalist, who has filed stories with this paper and Guardian Australia since his detention on Manus three years ago. He tells me a similar story of uncertainty, of cautious anticipation. “Immigration came to us a few days ago and said, ‘You will go to America but it’s not to include those with negative [refugee] status,’ ” he tells me. “They said that you will have to fill application and the American officers will investigate your cases next week. 

“Most people are happy but they are deeply worried about Trump. I saw a lot of people that could not sleep well during last few days. We really don’t know what will happen and don’t know any details. I think if they don’t transfer people to America before January 20, Trump won’t accept us. I think the prime minister of Australia and Barack Obama are not sure that Trump will tear it [up] or not. It’s really big question that makes a big effect on the detention.” 

Behrouz tells me there’s a cohort of men on Manus who were not found to be refugees. Some of those received a negative status because of their refusal to co-operate with examiners – they had refused to surrender documentation or volunteer their personal histories. This struck me as perverse, before Behrouz told me that they refused to co-operate not because they weren’t genuine refugees, but because they assumed that once they were positively vetted their refugee status would force their settlement on Papua New Guinea. Ironically, these men thought they were keeping their options open – but it’s now unlikely that they will be eligible for US resettlement. 

“I wouldn’t imagine they’d be assessed by the US,” a government source familiar with refugee settlements tells me. “Maybe, speculatively, they could be assessed by the UN and that might reopen it for them.” The department’s own numbers suggest that this cohort is small – as of May 31, 98 per cent of asylum seekers who had been processed in PNG were found to be refugees. 

Behrouz was one of 30 men who did not volunteer their histories, but received refugee status anyway. “They said, ‘We found enough information about you in the media and your background is clear.’ They said, ‘We know that you are real refugee.’ ” 

Another who did not co-operate was Behnam, a 30-year-old Kurdish Iranian. “Many people became happy but most still don’t believe it,” Behnam tells me of the deal. He lives in Manus’s Foxtrot compound, one of two camps for those negatively assessed as refugees, which means he doesn’t believe he has much hope for being eligible for US resettlement. Behnam tells me that he is a genuine refugee, but was negatively assessed after refusing to co-operate in the process. To have co-operated, he felt, would be to receive refugee status and then be condemned to permanent settlement on PNG. “My [refugee status] interview was after Reza Berati’s murder. I have been target for security ever since. I didn’t enter PNG. I was dragged and exiled to PNG. It is one of the worst dangerous countries in the world. Why should anybody want to live here?” 

Behnam wasn’t briefed on the US deal by officials, he says. Only those men in the Oscar and Delta camps were, the ones assessed as refugees. “What do you think?” he asks me. “Is the deal serious?” 

2 . Trump concerns

The policy is grossly late and remains unsettled, but the government is to be acknowledged for it regardless. If fulfilled, it will, mostly and happily, vacate the camps. The Greens spokesman for immigration, Senator Nick McKim, was less than congratulatory, posting on social media: “How could any government of good conscience send refugees to Trump’s America?”

I asked the senator if he was serious in suggesting the deal was inappropriate or unconscionable. The men I spoke to this week are, behind their guardedness and uncertainty, uniformly excited by the prospect. 

“Of course the United States would be a far more desirable place to live than being indefinitely kept in offshore detention on Manus Island or Nauru,” McKim tells me. “That does not change the fact that they are being detained in Australian camps, remain Australia’s responsibility and should be resettled in Australia. I am saying that governments of good conscience do not run offshore detention camps that expose people to serious harm, and that governments of good conscience do not shirk their legal and ethical responsibility by sending desperate people to other parts of the world, particularly those who have family in Australia. Anything less than resettlement in Australia is a second-best option. And to be frank, the comments that President-elect Trump has made about immigration, particularly Muslim immigration, are concerning to say the least.” 

Much now depends upon the US government, but as Mike Pezzullo said this week, the number of people settled will be determined procedurally, rather than by arbitrary quota, meaning that all those who are eligible and pass the health and security checks can be resettled. On the other hand, as a government source told me: “If it falls over, I don’t know what the next step is.”

3 . ‘Ring of steel’

There is now a massive deployment of naval and Border Force vessels patrolling our waters, the largest ever in peacetime. This is our “ring of steel”. It is also a ring of secrecy. It was necessary to design the deployment before the announcement because, as the prime minister admitted this week, of the prospective increase in boat arrivals. Turnbull was clear that it was a “one-off” agreement, but it’s not clear if this message will reach those desperate enough to seek our shores by boat. 

A former executive official of the Department of Immigration tells me that, even if the deal to resettle is successful, there are plenty of loose ends – the legacy of policy that for years has been “mostly made up on the run and without sufficient thought to the foreseeable medium and long-term consequences”. This includes the fates of those ineligible for US resettlement and who refuse to return to their home countries. 

“I think the idea will be to corral everyone to one location. That would be Nauru, where there’s deals now to establish 20-year visas. I think that’s more threat than settlement solution – return home, or stay on Nauru for decades. The PNG government wants out, their courts have said future detention is not viable. So, the carrot is being sweetened – via a possible US deal but also increasing money offered to those who go home – but the stick is also being sharpened, with 20-year Nauru visas … The camps will not be shut but kept as contingency, part of the ‘ring of steel’ around Australia. The camps will be there in case anyone breaks that ring.

“I shudder to think of the damage it will do to those hoping for resettlement in the US and considering the comments of the man to be president.” 

The men on Manus shudder to think, too. “I’m just waiting for future,” one man tells me. 

Despite the government’s work, the election of Donald Trump has suddenly made that future very uncertain.

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on Nov 19, 2016 as "‘Our hope is destroyed after every good news’".

A free press is one you pay for. In the short term, the economic fallout from coronavirus has taken about a third of our revenue. We will survive this crisis, but we need the support of readers. Now is the time to subscribe.

Martin McKenzie-Murray is the author of The Speechwriter.