JOHN MENADUE. A refugee swap with the US to end the horror of refugees in Manus and Nauru may be on the cards!

Nov 12, 2016


I hope that this is so but it may not be straightforward.

There is history in such a swap that journalists and others should be aware of.

In its last year the Howard Government negotiated with the USA what came to be called the Mutual Assistance Arrangement .It was 1 to 1 resettlement. Australia agreed to resettle Cubans who had been intercepted at sea (that is they had not made landfall on US territory) and transferred to the Guantanamo Bay Naval Base. In return the US agreed to resettle people found to be refugees who were in Nauru.

While the population in Guantanamo Bay also consisted of Haitians the US had a separate arrangement with Canada for their resettlement. Canada would not resettle the Cubans as they were technically still on Cuban territory and therefore were not considered to be refugees. 

When it was announced that an agreement with the US had been struck the media and the Opposition led by Kevin Rudd at that time roundly criticised it as a refugee swap. UNHCR was non-committal and while noting it was unusual, it did not criticise the agreement if it meant that such an arrangement meant people were resettled.

But the arrangement never got off the ground .The 2007 elections were called and the new Rudd Government instructed that we immediately terminate the arrangement.

The Obama Refugee Summit in September this year required countries to come with resettlement places and it is not surprising that out of this the deal between Australia and the US developed.

Clearly any imminent announcement on an agreement with the US was held off until the US Presidential elections last week.

The outcome of a Trump victory may cause problems. Time is limited before the US Presidential Inauguration on 20 January. It is hard to see many being resettled by then, particularly given the ethnicity and religion of many on Nauru and Manus. Many are Muslims.

Will Trump support the arrangement or might he kill it off once he comes into office.  Hopefully he won’t.

The other unknown is that the US resettlement program for refugees do not give them permanent residency immediately. That is unlike Australia where resettlement automatically brings permanent residence. Refugees enter into the US on a one year visa and are then expected to apply within a year for their Green Card.  There is a risk that many may not realise that they will have only temporary residence and could become illegal and be deported back to the country they fled from.

So permanent residency is not automatic and indeed a Trump presidency may decide after resettlement not to grant permanency.

It is to be hoped that the detail can be sorted out and that not all the eggs are in the US basket.

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