VICE-president Mike Pence on Saturday reaffirmed US’s commitment to the refugee deal struck between Australia and the Obama government, despite current President Donald Trump’s open disdain for the agreement.
The Sydney Morning Herald reports Pence confirming the matter after a bilateral meeting with Australia’s Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull, saying:
“President Trump has made it clear we will honour the agreement, but it doesn’t mean we admire the agreement,” he said.
“Frankly looking back at the last administration, the President has never been shy about expressing frustration with other international agreements, most notably the so-called nuclear agreement with Iran.
“Rest assured, as I confirmed today with the Prime Minister, the United States of America will honour the agreement and actually we have initiated the process of fulfilling that agreement, subject to the vetting processes that now apply to all refugees in the United States.”
Under the deal inked in the final months of Barack Obama’s presidency, the United States would resettle 1,250 asylum seekers held in Australia’s offshore processing camps in Papua New Guinea and Nauru.
In return, Australia would take in refugees from El Salvador, Guatemala and Honduras.
The fate of the agreement became uncertain when Trump was elected to power in the recent US election and thrown into further disarray during the widely-reported acrimonious phone call the leader had with Turnbull after his win.
According to reports, the conversation saw Trump yelling at Turnbull and hanging up the phone after 25 minutes. The phone call was originally expected to last an hour.
Washington Post, citing information from sources and unnamed US officials, reported that Trump even told Turnbull at one point that he had already spoken with four other leaders that day and that theirs was “the worst call by far”.
During the call, the recently inaugurated president apparently fumed as Turnbull pressed for commitment to the refugee deal. The disagreement came as no surprise, however, as it was only a day earlier that Trump had signed the controversial executive order to temporarily bar admissions of refugees into the US.
It was also then that Trump characterised the deal with Australia as “dumb” and vowed to study it although previous reports quoted Turnbull claiming to have received the former’s commitment to honouring it.
Do you believe it? The Obama Administration agreed to take thousands of illegal immigrants from Australia. Why? I will study this dumb deal!
— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) February 2, 2017
A month or so after the verbal showdown, however, US officials reportedly went to Nauru to take fingerprints of asylum seekers there, signaling the revival of the “dumb deal”.
Pence, on confirming this to be true, acknowledged Turnbull’s role in making it happen and the pivotal role Australia plays as one of the US’s staunchest allies in the region.
“And whatever reservations the President may have about the details of agreements reached with the prior administration, we will honour this agreement out of respect for that enormously important alliance,” he was quoted saying.
The treatment of refugees at both Australia’s offshore processing camps in Manus Island and Nauru have often been criticised by human rights groups.
In August last year, The Guardian Australia leaked the “Nauru Files“, a compilation of reports claiming of more than 2,000 incidents of sexual abuse, beatings and attempted suicide at Nauru.
Global rights group Amnesty International (AI) later released its own report documenting harrowing tales of how abuse and mental deterioration were driving refugees in Nauru to attempt suicide.
In the 64-page document titled “Island of Despair”, the group flagged the Australian government for flouting international rights conventions, saying conditions at the camp that the refugees are subjected to amount to “torture” under international law.
Due to numerous concerns raised, the Papua New Guinea Supreme Court had in April last year ruled Australia’s detention of asylum seekers on Manus Island illegal and ordered both governments involved to end the practice. The facility has been marked for closure the second half of this year.