Donald Trump has torn into the US agreement to resettle refugees from Australia’s offshore detention centres, calling it a “dumb deal” and describing the refugees as illegal immigrants.
Trump took to Twitter to voice his displeasure at a deal he had pledged to uphold in a phone call with the Australian prime minister on Sunday.
“Do you believe it? The Obama administration agreed to take thousands of illegal immigrants from Australia. Why? I will study this dumb deal.”
Less than two hours previously, the US State Department had insisted the deal was on in response to a Washington Post report of a fraught phone call between Trump and Australia’s prime minister, Malcolm Turnbull.
“President Trump’s decision to honour the refugee agreement has not changed,” a US embassy spokesperson in Canberra said in a statement.
The deal brokered between former president Barack Obama and Turnbull originally forecast the resettlement of up to 1,250 refugees from Australia’s offshore detention islands of Manus Island and Nauru.
According to the Washington Post, Trump told Turnbull the refugee resettlement agreement was “the worst deal ever” and warned he was going to “get killed” politically for it during their one-on-one call last weekend, according to a detailed account of the conversation in the Washington Post.
The Post reported that Trump had fumed during his Sunday phone call with the Australian prime minister telling Turnbull he’d spoken to other world leaders on the same day, and this was “this was the worst call by far”.
Trump, according to the report, accused Australia of seeking to export the “next Boston bombers”.
The report says the friction between the two leaders “reflected Trump’s anger over being bound by an agreement reached by the Obama administration to accept refugees from Australian detention sites even while Trump was issuing an executive order suspending such arrivals from elsewhere in the world”.
The White House declined to comment on the report on Thursday.
The “one-off” refugee resettlement deal was announced in November with Obama agreeing to take an unspecified number of refugees from Australia’s offshore detention centres on Manus Island and Nauru.
Both Australian-run detention camps have been the subject of sustained criticism by the UN, human rights groups and other nations over systemic sexual and physical abuse of those detained, including rapes, beatings and the murder of one asylum seeker by guards; child sexual abuse; chronic rates of self-harm and suicide; dangerous levels of sustained mental illness, harsh conditions and inadequate medical treatment leading to several deaths.
The report on the phone call says Turnbull insisted the new administration honour the agreement, and allow refugees to enter the country on the normal vetting arrangements, which prompted Trump to declare they would be subjected to “extreme vetting”.
The call, scheduled for an hour, was terminated after 25 minutes, the Post said. The source of the account is attributed as a “senior US official”.
Turnbull declined to comment on the report, saying the resettlement deal remained on track and it was best that conversations between leaders remained private.
“I’m not going to comment on the conversation,” Turnbull told reporters in Melbourne. “During the course of the conversation, as you know and it was confirmed by the president’s official spokesman, the president assured me that he would continue with, honour the agreement we entered into with the Obama administration, with respect to refugee resettlement.”
Asked whether Trump had hung up on him, Turnbull again declined to comment, but he suggested he had argued Australia’s corner. “Australians know me very well. I always stand up for Australia in every forum.”
The new report significantly intensifies the government’s woes over the refugee deal, which has been the subject of confusing accounts out of Washington over the past few days.
The Turnbull government has been at pains to stress the deal is on track despite the contradictory statements out of Washington, and Turnbull has not referenced any tension between the two leaders, despite the fact the deal clearly contradicts Trump’s anti-immigrant messaging throughout the presidential campaign.
On Wednesday, Turnbull told the National Press Club: “The Trump administration has committed to progress with the arrangements to honour the deal … that was entered into with the Obama administration, and that was the assurance the president gave me when we spoke on the weekend.”
He repeated the formulation again on Thursday. “I received the assurance that I did [on the resettlement deal] from the president himself.”
Confusion about the deal has rolled on for days. A statement from the White House spokesman, Sean Spicer, said the US had agreed to consider resettlement of 1,250 of the refugees held in Australia’s offshore detention centres on Manus Island and Nauru. Most have been on the islands more than three years.
“The deal specifically deals with 1,250 people, they’re mostly in Papua New Guinea, being held … there will be extreme vetting applied to all of them as part and parcel of the deal that was made,” Spicer told the White House press corps.
“The president, in accordance with that deal, to honour what had been agreed upon by the United States government … will go forward.”
But Spicer’s comment was almost immediately undermined when the ABC’s Washington bureau was telephoned by a White House source insisting the agreement was still under consideration and the president had not made a final decision.
On Thursday the State Department issued a separate statement saying that the deal was going ahead. This was backed by the US Embassy in Canberra.
The deal with Australia does not commit the US to unconditionally accepting any number of refugees from Australia’s offshore detention islands. The deal only commits the US to allowing refugees to “express an interest” in being resettled in America. Any, even all, refugees may be rejected during the “extreme vetting” process.
Confusion over the exact nature of the deal – which neither government is prepared to reveal – has led to speculation the US could refuse to accept any refugees from the Australian-run offshore detention camps, citing failure at the extreme vetting stage, while still claiming to be “honouring” the deal.
The majority of the refugees held on the detention island by Australia – most for more than three years – are Iranian, one of the nationalities banned under Trump’s sweeping immigration bans announced last weekend.
There are also significant cohorts of Iraqis, Somalians, and Sudanese, also banned from entering the US.
Currently, there are about 1,900 people, refugees and asylum seekers, on Australia’s two offshore detention islands. The latest Australian government statistics show there are 871 men in detention on Manus Island and 373 people living in the regional processing centre on Nauru. About 700 more refugees sent to Nauru by Australia live in the community on that island. Only refugees – those recognised as having a well-founded fear of persecution in their home country – will be considered for resettlement.
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