It's hard to imagine how the US-Australia refugee deal could have been handled worse

Ben Winsor
This article is more than 1 month old
Former Australian prime minister Malcolm Turnbull and former US President Barack Obama shake hands at an Apec summit in 2016
In 2016, then Australian prime minister Malcolm Turnbull and US President Barack Obama signed a deal to transfer 1,250 refugees from Nauru and Manus Island to the USA. President Donald Trump later called it a ‘dumb deal’ and critics say the program’s implementation has been poorly handled among multiple crises in the US. Photograph: Kevin Lamarque/Reuters
In 2016, then Australian prime minister Malcolm Turnbull and US President Barack Obama signed a deal to transfer 1,250 refugees from Nauru and Manus Island to the USA. President Donald Trump later called it a ‘dumb deal’ and critics say the program’s implementation has been poorly handled among multiple crises in the US. Photograph: Kevin Lamarque/Reuters
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Last modified on Wed 16 Dec 2020 01.13 EST

Four years ago then Australian prime minister Malcolm Turnbull struck a deal with then US president Barack Obama to transfer up to 1,250 of Australia’s unwanted refugees to the United States.

The deal outlives both men’s leadership.

As we enter 2021 – despite US president Donald Trump’s condemnation of “this dumb deal” and a pandemic which has crippled the US resettlement system – the transfers continue. About 870 have arrived so far with more slated shortly.

After more than seven years in limbo, refugees will arrive with barely more than the clothes on their backs and they will be plunged into a collapsed economy, a rampant pandemic and a threadbare support system.

The Ads-Up refugee network works to mobilise Australians at home and in the US to help plug the gaps and repair the damage.

We have our work cut out for us.

A brutal welcome

After touching down in Los Angeles, refugees are separated from each other and shuttled on to flights to cities from Phoenix to Philadelphia, San Antonio to Salt Lake City. Each will be handed a debt notice for their transfer flights – an absurdity that can total more than $11,000 for families with children.

The new arrivals are offered just 90 days of accommodation and basic support. Then they’re on their own.

In theory, resettlement agencies are supposed to help with job applications, work authorisation and medical assistance in this period. But in reality, many refugees tell us they’re all but abandoned.

Their stories are harrowing. Women evading honour killings. Gay men who fled Iranian authorities. Political dissidents on the run from the Taliban. Sudanese minorities escaping ethnic cleansing. Entire families fleeing genocide in Myanmar.

Even before the pandemic, America’s refugee program was in crisis. Trump cut the refugee intake to less than 20% its former level and slashed funding for resettlement services. Caseworkers are overworked, underpaid and sometimes completely missing in action.

That was before Covid-19. America’s death toll this winter hovers around 3,000 a day. The pandemic has inflicted a devastating and disproportionate toll on immigrant communities, communities of colour, and America’s lowest-paid workers. Several Manus and Nauru refugees have contracted Covid-19; one has been hospitalised.

Still, the chance to escape limbo in Papua New Guinea and Nauru seems to outweigh the risks: “It’s better to die outside, you’re free,” said one refugee.

A crisis of Australia’s own making

The decision can still be agonising, especially when just one family member is offered resettlement.

A young woman who arrived in Australia as a teen with her father and brother now lives in America alone. Her father remains trapped on Nauru, her brother is in Australia after a medical evacuation, and her mother and sister are in Iran – the splintering of a family co-signed by Iran’s despotic government and Australia’s cruel indifference.

None of this happens out of necessity. All of it is forced on refugees by the Australian government’s seven-year failure to resolve a crisis of its own making.

Almost all these refugees arrived in the days and months after the government’s sudden 2013 announcement that refugees arriving by boat would be barred from resettling in Australia – a deterrent which appears to have succeeded but has left thousands in limbo.

More than 40% of refugees tell Ads-Up they need assistance with medical care; another 40% request help with dental treatment. Inadequate healthcare on the islands means some arrive with easily treatable infections which have been left to fester undiagnosed.

One mother needed urgent surgery for a leaky heart valve, another for a botched vaginal tear repair after childbirth in Nauru. One young man was diagnosed with leukemia a month after landing, a disease which appears to have gone undetected by Australian authorities.

Several refugees say they cannot chew solid food after years of dental neglect. “He destroyed my face,” one man said, after “treatment” from the only dentist on Manus.

Repairing the damage

Despite everything, most arrivals bear no ill will towards Australians. They recall those who befriended them via Facebook when they were stranded, or who held vigils and protests. They are grateful to America, and even Trump, for giving them the chance to restart their lives.

But the newfound freedom is bittersweet.

Refugees who were halfway through law or medical degrees before fleeing have had some of their best years stolen. Now they settle for minimum wage jobs to keep afloat.

Like millions of Americans, many live pay cheque to pay cheque, just one unexpected bill from financial ruin. Almost none will receive treatment for the trauma they’ve endured. They will receive no redress for the years stolen from them. Many bear lifelong scars from violence, torture and medical neglect.

Through Ads-Up we seek to raise funds not only to cover essentials and emergency costs but to deliver grants for vocational training and college courses.

One of the girls wants to become a human rights lawyer. A boy wants to become a computer engineer – he’s already built a detailed 3D computer model of the Nauru detention camp, the only place he can remember before arriving in America.

Australians help with grassroots donations and by volunteering, trying to repair the damage inflicted in our names.

Virginia and her husband in New York coached a young refugee on job interviews and took him to his first one. He got the job. In Arizona Gina and her 17-year-old son, Will, check in a new arrival daily. In Philadelphia Alex, a young Australian who didn’t know much about Manus or Nauru, gave a new arrival a trial shift in his food truck. Mohammad now works there full time.

From flight debts to threadbare support, medical neglect to families ripped apart, it’s hard to imagine how the deal could have been handled much worse.

That each refugee has nonetheless embraced their newfound freedom with determination and gratitude is testament to the resilience of these women, men and children, and to the inhumanity of the alternative – indefinite detention and rampant abuse.

As of writing, almost 300 people remain in PNG and Nauru, and thousands remain in Australia having been evacuated for medical treatment.

Many Australians are working to repair the damage in the US and to end the detention nightmare by privately sponsoring refugees to resettle in Canada.

Ultimately, however, it will take government action to end this stain on Australia’s character. Together we must make it urgently clear that this rolling cruelty has to end.

  • Ben Winsor is co-founder of the Ads-Up USA refugee network which works to support Manus and Nauru refugees in the US and the Ads-Up Canada refugee network.