Australia-US refugee deal hasn’t worked in the past

The Australia-US refugee deal signed in September last year was not the first time both nations have tried to trade refugees — a similar deal from 2007 fizzled, with not a single transfer being made.

This latest agreement could go the same way but for different reasons.

A decade ago, the Howard government offered to resettle Haitian and Cuban refugees from a US immigration facility in Guantanamo Bay — not to be confused with the military prison nearby.

In exchange the US agreed to take 200 refugees a year from Manus Island and Nauru.

It was the dying days of the ‘Pacific Solution’ — the facility in Papua New Guinea had been empty since 2004 and fewer than 100 refugees remained on Nauru.

“We considered this deal to be a bizarre sort of ridiculous and bizarre policy that sort of defied logic,” said lawyer David Manne, who at the time represented most of the Rohingya and Sri Lankan Tamil refugees on Nauru.

“On the one hand it was seeking to signal a further harsh form of border protection and on the other hand it was entering into a bilateral deal with another country that provides resettlement for refugees that is safety and the ability to rebuild their lives,” he told the ABC.

Not long after the deal was signed the Coalition lost power to Labor.

The Rudd government resettled the remaining refugees in Australia after labelling the Pacific centres “wrong” and “a waste of taxpayer money”.

Chris Evans, who was immigration Minister in the Rudd government, told a Senate estimates hearing in 2008 the US-Australia deal was well and truly dead.

“I will take a couple of deep breaths so that I can be diplomatic,” he said when asked if the arrangement would be continuing.

“I am advised that it is defunct. If it was not, I would have made sure that it was. It will not be pursued.”

The US has hit its refugee intake cap of 50,000 for this year and it will not reset again until October 1, giving the Government a month-long window to get any eligible refugees processed and relocated.

Human Rights Watch’s refugee program director, Bill Frelick, says he thinks it is unlikely any refugees will be brought from Manus Island or Nauru to the US.

“A number of the refugees on Manus Island and Nauru are coming from the countries that are listed in the travel ban by the US — places like Iran — so it is very hard for me to imagine in the exercise of discretion — which this is — that the US would choose to bring refugees from Australia to the US,” he told the ABC.

Mr Manne says both countries must honour the deal — in good faith — if Australia continues to refuse to resettle the refugees in PNG and Nauru.

“The fundamental fact is at the moment for those men, women and children who are stuck in this terrible predicament on Manus Island as refugees the only option for evacuation to safety so they can rebuild their lives is the US deal,” he said.