Will Trump honor deal with Australia to resettle Muslim asylum-seekers?

(Credit: Adrian Patino / Flickr)

A “substantial” number of asylum-seekers from Australia’s offshore detention camps will be resettled in the U.S. following President-elect Donald Trump’s inauguration on Jan. 20, Australia’s Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull said this week regarding a recent deal struck between the two countries. Now, it’s up to Trump to decide if it’s a good deal.

Turnbull announced the one-off deal on Saturday after agreeing to take in Central American asylum-seekers at President Barack Obama’s U.N. refugee summit in September. The trade allows Turnbull to maintain Australia’s annual intake without encouraging more asylum-seekers by boat.

Australia currently detains about 1,200 to 1,800 asylum-seekers in camps on Papua New Guinea’s Manus Island and nearby Nauru, in accordance with its hardline immigration policy. The government is currently attempting to pass a “lifetime ban” on any adult asylum-seeker who has attempted to enter Australia by boat since July 2013 from ever receiving a visa, even as a tourist or spouse.

Turnbull and his colleagues have expressed immense pride in their immigration policy, but they are facing mounting pressure at home and internationally to resettle the detainees after multiple reports of abuse and inhumane living conditions in the camps were leaked.

However, Trump also campaigned on a hardline immigration policy, even proposing “a total and complete shutdown of Muslims entering the United States.” Trump’s campaign and vice-president-elect have gone back and forth on whether he still stands by that policy, but the December statement recently reappeared on his website.

Since many of Australia’s detainees are Muslims, who fled conflicts and hardships in Syria, Pakistan, Afghanistan, Iraq and Indonesia, observers now wonder if Trump will veto the deal.

“You’re entitled to speculate about that, but I’m confident that the arrangements we’ve set in place will continue,” Turnbull told Australian Broadcasting Corporation on Monday.

Deputy Prime Minister Barnaby Joyce remained cryptic: “Even if I do know [if Trump will uphold the agreement]and the problem with it is because I’m on the national security committee, I do know…I really can’t answer you,” he said to ABC.

Although U.S. State Department spokeswoman Elizabeth Trudeau refused to provide details, according to Reuters, she did say that the U.S. has a “longstanding” program of accepting refugees referred by the U.N. refugee program, and resettlement projections would not change for 2017.

Others are not so confident.

“I don’t see that there’s much political chance of Trump allowing this deal to go through, unless there is something else going on we’re not aware of right now, which is certainly a possibility,” Niels Frenzen, director of the immigration clinic at the University of California, told Radio National on Tuesday.

“In all likelihood, the only way it’s going to happen is if the refugees are transferred to the U.S. before inauguration day,” Frenzen said. But given the lengthy U.S. vetting process, he didn’t think that was likely to happen.

That’s one thing most parties agree on. “America’s screening process has always been pretty tough, and always will be,” former U.S. ambassador to Australia John Berry said to ABC. Berry believes Trump will honor the deal.

“One of the things we’ll be doing is a very thorough background investigation of anybody who would be allowed entry to the country through this process or any other,” he said. “I think, whether that happens under President Obama or President-elect Trump, I don’t see much difference in the short-term on that issue.”

“The process will continue for some months,” Turnbull told Channel Nine. “The United States won’t be short-cutting their security or health checks.”

If Trump does strike down the deal, Turnbull will have to find another country willing to resettle the asylum-seekers. Meanwhile, the detainees will have to choose between remaining on Nauru or Papua New Guinea or returning to their home countries.

“One thing I want to be clear about is they will not come to Australia,” Turnbull told Channel Nine.

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Joanne Lu

Joanne Lu is a South Carolina-based writer and editor dedicated to global development, poverty alleviation and social justice. After a year in Rwanda, she now covers the Asia-Pacific and economics. Find her on Twitter @joannelu or email joanne@humanosphere.com.