I signed the deal to resettle some of Australia’s refugees from Nauru and Manus Island in the US. I wanted to see how they are faring now.
Two years ago, Australia’s then prime minister Malcolm Turnbull called to congratulate Donald Trump on his inauguration, and to elicit the new president’s support for continuing an agreement between Australia and the US. Australia had stopped thousands of asylum seekers from reaching its shores and had arranged to detain them on islands in the South Pacific; the US had agreed to resettle some in America. The transcript of the phone conversation makes clear that the deal was a top priority for Turnbull and an unwelcome surprise for Trump, who called it “a rotten deal”.
As the assistant secretary of state for population, refugees and migration in the US, I had signed the deal in September 2016. Had our team said no to the Australians, it might have kept the pressure on them to change their policy, but reports about the dire conditions on the islands worried us and my sense was the refugees would be better off restarting their lives elsewhere as soon as possible. The initial press coverage of the deal, suggesting it was a one-for-one swap of refugees, was wrong. Instead, in return for taking up to 1,250 refugees, our main request was that Australia do more to help refugees globally, including from regions such as Africa and Central America.
Amazingly, the Australia-US deal has survived anti-refugee politics of both governments. Today, refugees continue to be screened by the Department of Homeland Security and moved from the South Pacific to the US, albeit slowly and in small numbers. This is a rare good news story emerging from an administration that has, tragically, slashed the numbers of refugees being resettled in America.
So how are these newcomers faring? Ahead of my recent talk at the University of New South Wales’s Kaldor Centre for International Refugee Law, I met Sri Lankan parents of three children – including a baby born under difficult circumstances in the Pacific Island nation of Nauru – who are now living on the US west coast, happy that their children will receive an education, have a good future and experience freedom. The father, however, fears the earnings from his job at an Indian restaurant will not be sufficient to pay the rent for a two-bedroom apartment and other bills.
In the same informal meeting, three young men told me they had fled their village in Pakistan because they belong to a persecuted minority group. After Nauru, all three had been resettled near Baltimore but had moved west looking for opportunities. One is working the graveyard shift at a convenience store and another, who had earlier studied medicine, is now a landscaper. Still in their early 20s, both are eager to earn high school equivalency degrees and then continue their educations. The third, an artist, is now a 38-year-old chef cooking Mexican food and remains separated from his wife and child left behind in Pakistan.
They described a hellacious environment on Nauru. Men slept in bunk beds, 40 men to a tent, or several families to a tent, in the oppressive tropical heat. For three years the tents did not have fans and also failed to keep out rain. They told me the food was bad, they were treated like criminals, and the local people were hostile, too, and stole their mobile phones. They had nothing to do but spend day after day after day waiting. They watched movies. Many took the initiative to learn English. They waited six or seven hours for a one-hour turn to use the internet over a very slow connection. One day a week they were allowed to visit a gym – for one hour.
The heat made it impossible to nap or sleep during the day, and this was a particular burden on families with small children. One said, “I watched an Iranian set himself on fire and small children go crazy.”
On a trip to Chicago, I met Imran Mohammed, a 24-year-old Rohingya refugee. Born and brought up in Myanmar, he has a scar on one temple that dates from when he was beaten by Buddhists at the age of eight. For most of his childhood, his parents insisted he and his siblings stay inside their home in order to protect them. He set out from Myanmar in 2011, travelling by foot and boat to Bangladesh, Malaysia and Indonesia before boarding a boat for Australia in 2013. The boat was stopped by the Australian navy that September and he was taken to Manus, an island belonging to Papua New Guinea. He stayed for nearly five years, during which time his father disappeared and his mother and siblings fled the violence to Bangladesh.
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