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Trump outburst imperils US-Australia asylum deal

© US President Donald Trump speaks on the phone with Russia's President Vladimir Putin from the Oval Office of the White House on January 28, 2017, in Washington, DC.

Text by Tracy MCNICOLL

Latest update : 2017-02-02

Confusion reigns over the fate of a refugee resettlement deal agreed last year between Australia and the Obama administration after reports surfaced of a fiery weekend phone call between US President Donald Trump and Australian PM Malcolm Turnbull.

Relations between Washington and Canberra, staunch historical allies, appear to have soured unexpectedly.

Citing “senior US officials briefed on Saturday’s exchange”, The Washington Post reported details Wednesday of an allegedly heated exchange between the two leaders that strayed significantly from the official accounts of the call. Trump told Turnbull it was “the worst call by far” of the day, which had also included a talk with Russian President Vladimir Putin, the newspaper reported.

The Australian Broadcasting Corporation cited “senior Australian Government officials” saying the report is “substantially accurate”.

For his part, Turnbull expressed disappointment at the purported leaks, citing Canberra’s policy to not “reveal details of conversations other than in a manner that is agreed”. But the prime minister did deny the report that Trump hung up on him, telling a Sydney radio station that the call ended “courteously”.

The crux of Trump’s quarrel with Turnbull regards an agreement negotiated with Barack Obama in November to resettle asylum seekers held on Pacific islands on Australia’s behalf.

“This the worst deal ever,” The Post reported Trump saying during the call that took place after Trump signed an executive order temporarily banning refugees as well as travellers from seven Muslim-majority countries.

“I don’t want these people,” Trump is said to have told Turnbull. The president complained to the Australian leader that he was “going to get killed” politically and said Australia was looking to export the “next Boston bombers” to the United States, referring to Tamerlan and Dzhokhar Tsarnaev, two American citizens native of Kyrgyzstan who attacked the 2013 Boston marathon.

About four hours after the Washington Post report – and despite a variety of assurances before and after the report from Turnbull, the US State Department, the US embassy in Canberra and the president’s own press secretary that the deal would go ahead – Trump tweeted, “Do you believe it? The Obama Administration agreed to take thousands of illegal immigrants from Australia. Why? I will study this dumb deal!”

Australia holds more than a thousand boatpeople in offshore detention centres on the small Pacific island nation of Nauru and on Papua New Guinea’s Manus Island. Hundreds more are detained in Australia after being transferred from the islands for medical treatment. The Australian offshore detention policy has drawn criticism from the United Nations, Human Rights Watch and Amnesty International. Some detainees have been held for more than three years in grim conditions.

Last August, British newspaper The Guardian cast a harsh spotlight on the policy in its award-winning series “The Nauru Files”. The series drew on more than 2,000 leaked incident reports from Australia’s Nauru camp to “set out as never before the assaults, sexual abuse, self-harm attempts, child abuse and living conditions endured by asylum seekers held by the Australian government, painting a picture of routine dysfunction and cruelty”.

Months earlier, in April, Papua New Guinea’s Supreme Court declared the Manus facility unconstitutional, leading the country’s prime minister to say it would be closed, spurring Australia to seek other options for the detainees while insisting they would not be resettled in Australia.

The November deal with Obama came shortly after Turnbull had agreed at an Obama-hosted New York summit in September to resettle refugees from El Salvador, Guatemala and Honduras as part of a US-led resettlement program, leading some to dub the pair of deals a “refugee swap”.

In the days after the weekend Trump-Turnbull call, players on both sides seemed to indicate the resettlement deal would go ahead after many had feared it would be imperiled by Trump’s moratorium on refugees; many of the asylum seekers held by Australia are from Iran and Iraq, two countries subject to Trump’s travel ban.

“Any substantial delay in the relocation of refugees… would be highly concerning from a humanitarian perspective,” Catherine Stubberfield, a spokeswoman of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, told Reuters last week. “These men, women and children can no longer afford to wait.”

After his weekend call with Washington, Turnbull had told reporters that he and Trump “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 honour that existing agreement.”

White House press secretary Sean Spicer on Tuesday had told reporters, “The deal specifically deals with 1,250 people that are mostly in Papua New Guinea being held.” He added: “Part of the deal is that they have to be vetted in the same manner that we’re doing now. There will be extreme vetting applied to all of them.”

Reports of the rift caused a shock in Australia. It rated as breaking news in the country and a surprise given the strong trade, military and intelligence ties the pair of nations has enjoyed historically.

Australia belongs to the so-called “Five Eyes” network, one of only four trusted allies alongside Britain, Canada and New Zealand with which the US shares sensitive intelligence as a matter of routine. The US and Australia have also been allies in wars in Afghanistan and Iraq.

Not business buddies

Moreover, Turnbull and Trump appeared poised to get along.

"I suppose as both being businessmen who found our way into politics somewhat later in life, we come to the problems of our own nations and indeed world problems with a pragmatic approach," Turnbull told reporters after his post-election phone call with President-elect Trump back in November, a discussion Turnbull said “could not have been warmer”.

But Trump’s brand of pragmatism may be more than Turnbull bargained for.

The Washington Post’s report cited officials saying Trump was sceptical of the deal because he did not see a specific advantage associated with the US honouring it, leading the newspaper to opine that “Trump’s position appears to reflect the transactional view he takes of relationships, even when it comes to diplomatic ties with long-standing allies”.

News of the clash with Canberra came amid reports Trump had again spurned Mexico, claiming he was ready to send US troops to its southern neighbour. “You have a bunch of bad hombres down there,” Trump told his Mexican counterpart Enrique Pena Nieto, according to an excerpt obtained by the Associated Press (AP) of a conversation last Friday. “You aren’t doing enough to stop them. I think your military is scared. Our military isn’t, so I just might send them down to take care of it.” AP quoted the White House saying the comments were "lighthearted", while Mexico denied that Trump had threatened to send troops at all.

Trump referenced his controversial conversations Thursday at a National Prayer Breakfast in Washington, telling the gathering, “When you hear about the tough phone calls I’m having, don’t worry about it, just don’t worry about it.” He told the large crowd that the world is “in trouble” and that the US is being taken advantage of by most other countries. “We’re going to straighten it out,” he said. “That’s what I do. I fix things.”

Date created : 2017-02-02

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