President Donald Trump meets with Australian Prime Minister Malcom Turnbull for a bilateral meeting in New York City in May 2017. Photo by: Shealah Craighead / The White House

CANBERRA — Australian NGOs working for the rights of refugees trying to enter the country have been angered by the release of transcripts detailing a telephone conversation between U.S. President Donald Trump and Australian Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull that bluntly discussed the issue.

As part of a “turn back the boats” policy, Australia refuses to accept refugee applications from asylum seekers who arrived by boat — in contravention of international law. Instead, at a cost of nearly $1 billion per year, it has outsourced processing to poor Pacific island neighbors of Manus Island and Nauru, while searching for third nations to take on the refugees. After a lengthy impasse, news leaked late last year that the Obama administration had inked a deal to take up to 1,250 vetted refugees, while Australia would take asylum seekers from Central America.

“When the U.S. deal was signed there was a glimmer of hope,” Mat Tinkler, director of policy and public affairs with Save the Children, told Devex. “What the transcript has revealed is more uncertainty. It looks like the deal is all form and no substance.”

Australian NGOs quickly responded with outrage at elements of the transcript of the private conversation, which they said was often at odds with public statements. The transcript was published in the Washington Post, along with another one between Trump and the president of Mexico.

US-Australia refugee resettlement agreement in question

Will President Trump honor an agreement with the Australian government to resettle refugees currently held in offshore detention? Either way, analysts warn Devex that the lack of details about the accord could mean that fewer individuals may benefit and the process could be further delayed.

“For those of us who have been active on this issue for a long time, this adds to the despair, but it confirms our fears about what is happening,” Paul Power, CEO of the Refugee Council of Australia, told Devex. “For me the biggest thing is the way these leaders — world leaders — were talking about people with utter disrespect. The majority of these people seeking a new country have been found to have a well-founded fear of persecution.”

Elaine Person, Australia director for the Human Rights Watch, told Devex she was disgusted. “The leaked transcript reveals how Australia's foreign policy has been totally hijacked by immigration concerns,” she said. “You would have thought the first call between these two leaders would have focused on more pressing matters of global security, but instead you have Australia’s prime minister desperately trying to persuade the U.S. president to take a small number of refugees.”

NGOs and advocates for the refugees said the transcript provides an important insight into Australia’s refugee policies. Here are some of their key takeaways.

The US does not need to take a single refugee as part of the deal

Turnbull: “The obligation is for the United States to look and examine and take up to — and only if they so choose — 1,250 to 2,000 [refugees]. Every individual is subject to your vetting. You can decide to take them or to not take them after vetting. You can decide to take 1,000 or 100. It is entirely up to you. The obligation is to only go through the process.”

Daniel Webb, director of legal advocacy at the Human Rights Law Centre, has visited Manus Island three times to inspect conditions and speak with the men housed there. “Turnbull was clearly more concerned with appearances than reality — totally preoccupied with maintaining the facade of the deal irrespective of whether or not anyone will actually find safety under it,” he said in a media statement.

For him, the proof of this private statement is the fact it has been nine months since the deal was announced yet no refugee has received an outcome. “Since this deal was announced ... not one single person has received safety under it,” Webb said. “Hundreds haven't even had an initial interview.”

Shen Narayanasamy, human rights campaign director for advocacy group GetUp, told Devex the apparently conspiratorial nature of the conversation showed the Australian government was not acting in good faith. “It’s clear that Turnbull wanted the appearance of a deal,” she said. “This is the most disturbing part of the transcript.”

It’s not about people. It’s about making a political statement

Turnbull: “We know exactly who they are. They have been on Nauru or Manus for over three years and the only reason we cannot let them into Australia is because of our commitment to not allow people to come by boat. Otherwise we would have let them in. If they had arrived by airplane and with a tourist visa then they would be here.”

Refugee rights advocates often accuse the Turnbull government of demonizing refugees in the eyes of the public to justify their offshore processing policy. But they say Turnbull’s statement shows these security fears to be false: Turnbull appears to admit Australia does not have any objections or concerns about the people seeking new lives in Australia. It is simply their method of arrival.

“We are seeing here that the message Australia is giving to other governments is very much at odds with the public message,” Power said.

“Stop the boats” has been the catchcry of Australian politics over the past decade to be seen to be strong on border security,” Person said. “It is incredibly sad that people are stuck for years in limbo on Manus and Nauru because the humane responsible solution — letting them settle in Australia — is politically toxic. This shows the brutal truth that Australia’s leader simply doesn’t care about the fate of these people but just needs the political space to make it look like something is happening.”

A disregard for international law

Australia’s NGOs are pointing to the disregard of international law, particularly the Refugee Convention, revealed in the call.

“Turnbull shows the hypocrisy of Australia’s policies and a complete disregard for international law when he freely admits that Australia would have accepted these refugees if they had arrived by plane instead of by boat,” Pearson said. “Under the Refugee Convention, countries aren’t supposed to discriminate based on their mode of transport.”

The actions of Australia have received condemnation from the U.N., including the U.N. Special Rapporteur on the Human Rights of Migrants François Crépeau, who called Australia’s refugee policy “cruel, inhuman and degrading” after his November visit to Australia. In July the U.N. High Commissioner on Refugees Filippo Grandi criticized Australia for going back on an agreement that it would resettle vulnerable refugees with families in Australia.

The ignoring of international law has left NGOs frustrated and angry, with Power telling Devex that Australia is leaving it up to other countries to do what they have signed on to do.

“It’s sadly ironic that this debate is happening as Australia [is] set to get a seat on the U.N. Human Rights Council,” he said.

Refugees on Manus and Nauru are Australia’s responsibility

The transcript of the Trump and Turnbull call has led to renewed efforts by Australian NGOs to push to bring the refugees to Australia. They are again calling on Canberra to allow them into the country.

“Our reaction at Save the Children is one of despair for the people we worked so closely on in Nauru and Manus Island when we read the transcript,” Tinkler said. “Just like you and me, these people want a job, a safe home, education and a future for their children. This needs an end. It needs hope.”

For the refugees on Manus Island in particular, time is running out for an answer.

The Supreme Court of Papua New Guinea has ruled the detention on Manus Island to be illegal, and the Australian government will close the camp as of October 31. Australia wants the camp’s inhabitants to remain in PNG or be moved to Cambodia, which in 2014 signed a deal to take the refugees, though only seven have since volunteered to go.

“The situation in Manus Island in particular is desperately unsafe. Our latest report revealed that refugees on Manus Island have endured a critical or major incident, on average, almost every day this year,” Narayanasamy said.

In the PNG community, advocates say refugees could face aggression and no meaningful support. Cambodia, meanwhile, does not offer cultural, political or economic support for refugees.

“Wherever these people are sent, they will highly likely spend the rest of their lives there,” Power said. “It has to be a place where it is possible for them to rebuild their lives and have hope.”

The perception among the international community is that the responsibility lies with Australia, NGO officials say.

“I have had the opportunity to speak to other leaders quietly about the situation on Manus Island and Nauru for the sake of the individuals involved,” Power said. “I wanted to see if they would be prepared to consider the resettlement of highly vulnerable people who have been given refugee status. The universal answer is no. All around the world the view is that it is Australia’s responsibility. And they are confused by Australia’s message — on the one hand Australia [is] saying they have solved the problem of the boats and on the other hand they are saying other governments need to support them in finding an answer to these refugees. It is going down badly.”

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About the author

  • Lisa Cornish

    Lisa Cornish is a Senior Reporter based in Canberra, where she focuses on the Australian aid community. Lisa formerly worked with News Corp Australia as a data journalist for the national network and was published throughout Australia in major metropolitan and regional newspapers, including the Daily Telegraph in Melbourne, Herald Sun in Melbourne, Courier-Mail in Brisbane, and online through Lisa additionally consults with Australian government providing data analytics, reporting and visualization services. Lisa was awarded the 2014 Journalist of the Year by the New South Wales Institute of Surveyors.