The fate of asylum seekers detained by Australia on Nauru and Manus Island remains in limbo, after Donald Trump backpedaled on an agreement to resettle 1,250 of them in a tweet late last night, not even two hours after the U.S. embassy in Canberra confirmed he would honor it.
Do you believe it? The Obama Administration agreed to take thousands of illegal immigrants from Australia. Why? I will study this dumb deal!
— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) February 2, 2017
Under the deal arranged by Australian Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull and former U.S. President Barack Obama, the U.S. promised to review Australia’s detainees for resettlement. In exchange, Australia agreed to take in Honduran and El Salvadoran asylum seekers who are currently at a U.S.-led center in Costa Rica.
The swap deal served the dual purpose of helping both nations reach their annual intake commitments, while still discouraging migrants from neighboring regions. The deal is also a critical part of Australia’s plan to close its offshore detention centers, which have come under harsh public scrutiny following reports of abuse and terrible living conditions.
But back in November when the swap was announced, observers were already skeptical it would go through under Trump, especially because many of Australia’s detainees are Muslims from Iran, Iraq, Somalia, Syria and Southeast Asia. Nevertheless, Australia’s leadership remained confident.
Turnbull spoke with Trump on the phone Saturday, a day after the president signed the controversial executive order temporarily barring refugees. Turnbull told reporters that Trump confirmed he would honor the deal.
“We discussed the importance of border security. … We also discussed the resettlement arrangement of refugees from Nauru and Manus, which had been entered into with the previous administration, and I thank President Trump for his commitment to honor that existing agreement,” Turnbull said, according to Reuters.
The White House response was more cautious in tone: “There will be extreme vetting applied to all of them,” White House Press Secretary Sean Spicer told reporters on Tuesday.
But by Wednesday, dramatic reports began to surface. According to the Washington Post, senior U.S. officials said Trump cut short the scheduled hour-long phone call on Saturday after a mere 25 minutes, during which he said, “This is the worst deal ever.” He also reportedly said he was “going to get killed” politically and that Turnbull was trying to send him the “next Boston bombers.”
“This was the worst call by far,” Trump told Turnbull, according to the Washington Post, comparing the conversation to others he had that day with leaders that include Russian President Vladimir Putin, German Chancellor Angela Merkel and Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe.
The reports called into question the longtime alliance between the two countries. But Turnbull did not retract his earlier statements, instead stating again that Trump would stand by the agreement.
“I can assure you the relationship is very strong,” Turnbull told reporters, according to news.com.au.
By Wednesday night, the U.S. embassy in Canberra had also released an official statement saying that Trump had not changed his mind. “This was just reconfirmed to the State Department from the [White House] and on to this embassy at 1315 Canberra time (9:15 p.m. Eastern time).”
Statement from the US Embassy in Canberra. Trump Whitehouse will honour the refugee deal. Wow. pic.twitter.com/atJqPpPe6T
— James Massola (@jamesmassola) February 2, 2017
An hour and 40 minutes later, one tweet by Trump threw the entire deal into question: “Do you believe it? The Obama Administration agreed to take thousands of illegal immigrants from Australia. Why? I will study this dumb deal!”
Amid the confusion, refugee advocates in Australia have turned up the pressure on Turnbull.
“It’s high time that we ended this cruel political ping-pong and brought these people to safety in Australia,” Tim O’Connor, acting CEO of the Refugee Council of Australia, said in a statement. “The volatility of the new Trump administration has cast further doubt as to the viability of a U.S. resettlement deal, prolonging the torment of hundreds of innocent people.”
Meanwhile, the emotional and physical turmoil persists for those detained on Manus Island and Nauru, whose futures hang in the balance. Many of them have been there for more than three years, and news of Trump’s refugee ban already prompted one teenage detainee to attempt suicide on Saturday.
“It feels like someone is stabbing a knife in our chest when we hear different stories every day,” Imran Mohammed, a Rohingya refugee from Myanmar on Manus Island, told the Sydney Morning Herald. “We have no expectation, as well as no dream.”
With both centers slated to close by 2019, the asylum seekers will either have to accept resettlement elsewhere or return home. However, the viability of the former being an option is slim if Trump withdraws from the deal.