Trump says refugee agreement with Australia is ‘a dumb deal’

Australia tries to get resettlement plan back on track after US president tweets criticism

Australia is scrambling to save its agreement to resettle refugees in the US after Donald Trump raged publicly at "a dumb deal" and told the country's prime minister Malcolm Turnbull in private it was the "worst deal ever".

The US president took to Twitter late night in Washington to condemn the refugee swap and brand the asylum seekers held in camps on Nauru and Manus Island "illegal immigrants".

His intervention came after the Washington Post reported that Mr Trump had despaired of the deal in a phone call with Mr Turnbull on Saturday, told him that the conversation was the worst of his phone calls with world leaders that day, and then abruptly brought the 25-minute call to a close.

Mr Trump's pledge to "study" the agreement sparked immediate concern in Canberra. But Mr Turnbull dug in, saying in radio interviews he had a personal commitment from the president "confirmed several times now by the [US]government."


“We have a clear commitment from the president,” Mr Turnbull told Melbourne radio station 3AW. “We expect that the commitment will continue.”

But an Australian official acknowledged: “It’s over. It can’t survive - it was never going to survive Trump’s immigration ban”.

Details of the angry Trump call came only hours after it was reported that a leaked transcript of a call between the US president and his Mexican counterpart had Mr Trump saying he could send troops south of the border to take care of “bad hombres”.

The Associated Press, which cited the leaked transcript, said Mr Trump told Enrique Pena Nieto: "You aren't doing enough to stop them. I think your military is scared."

The hombres in question are believed to be the drug cartels.

Mr Trump's fury over the Australian deal appeared to be mostly directed at former president Barack Obama rather than Mr Turnbull. But some US politicians expressed dismay that the new president was threatening the close relationship between the two countries.

Mr Trump, according to the Post report, accused Australia of seeking to export the "next Boston bombers".

The report said the friction between the two leaders “reflected Trump’s anger over being bound by an agreement reached by the Obama administration to accept refugees from Australian detention sites even while Trump was issuing an executive order suspending such arrivals from elsewhere in the world”.

The Post's report said Mr Trump hung up on Mr Turnbull but the Australian prime minister denied that element of the report, saying the conversation had ended courteously.

‘Frank and Forthright’

While he declined to be drawn on other details, saying Australia had “very strong standards” about confidentiality when leaders spoke to other leaders, and followed diplomatic protocols, revealing only what had been mutually agreed - Mr Turnbull acknowledged the conversation had been “frank and forthright.”

The deal brokered between Mr Obama and Mr Turnbull last November originally forecast the resettlement of up to 1,250 refugees from Australia’s offshore detention islands of Manus Island and Nauru.

Both Australian-run detention camps have been the subject of sustained criticism by the UN, human rights groups and other nations over systemic sexual and physical abuse of those detained, including rapes, beatings, and the murder of one asylum seeker by guards; child sexual abuse; chronic rates of self-harm and suicide; dangerous levels of sustained mental illness, harsh conditions and inadequate medical treatment leading to several deaths.

The majority of the refugees held on the detention island by Australia - most for more than three years - are Iranian, one of the nationalities banned under Trump’s sweeping immigration bans announced last weekend.

There are also significant cohorts of Iraqis, Somalians, and Sudanese, also banned from entering the US.

The chaotic nature of Mr Trump’s administration has been revealed in the past few days with contradictory reports of whether the Republican Trump administration would honour the deal struck by his predecessor Barack Obama.

The deal was confirmed by White House spokesman Sean Spicer, before being walked back hours later in a phone call from another presidential aide.

It was then confirmed by the state department, and further by the US embassy in Canberra, before the president’s tweet appeared to end any hope the deal could progress.

It is not illegal to arrive in a foreign country without a visa or other documents in order to seek asylum: international law permits it, as does Australian domestic law.

The vast majority of the people held on both of Australia’s offshore detention islands have been found to be refugees - that is they have a well-founded fear of persecution in their homeland and they are legally owed protection.

Guardian service