A one-off deal to send refugees from Manus Island and Nauru to the United States was rushed by the government to stop it being scuttled by President-elect Donald Trump, according to the Refugee Council of Australia.
The agreement was announced by Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull on Sunday, just days after Mr Trump was elected, with a lack of detail frustrating refugee groups.
While it was not opposed by the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, Amnesty International slammed it as “an extreme step in shirking responsibility by the Australian government”.
The offer will only apply to refugees currently on Manus and Nauru, but Mr Turnbull could not say how many refugees would be sent, nor whether the deal would survive under Mr Trump.
Acting CEO of the Refugee Council of Australia, Tim O’Connor, said the deal – which followed a year of Australia-US negotiations – was a “vital step” towards Australia ending offshore detention, but was concerned that many refugees may not be offered a sustainable solution.
“It looks from the government’s perspective like they’ve rushed it through before Donald Trump gets into office,” he told The New Daily.
Opposition Leader Bill Shorten said Labor was behind the move, but noted it would have been better to have finalised the deal before Americans voted in Mr Trump.
Deal ‘lacks specifics’
At a media conference in Melbourne on Sunday, human rights and refugee advocacy groups said the announcement was full of holes.
“What’s so disturbing and troubling with today’s announcement is that the UNHCR was hearing it for the first time,” Asylum Seeker Resource Centre chief executive Kon Karapanagiotidis told reporters in Melbourne.
“And the UNHCR itself has come out and said all people need to be safely resettled, it needs to be done immediately. These people need to be evacuated now.”
Mr Turnbull said refugees would be prioritised based on “vulnerability”, and those who chose not to take up the offer would be offered a 20-year visa for Nauru, or sent back to their home countries.
The UNHCR released a statement on Sunday praising the deal, but said it had not been consulted.
Mr Karapanagiotidis said Australia had a “moral obligation for the damage and harm” done to asylum seekers in the offshore detention centres in the last three-and-a-half years.
Human Rights Law Centre legal advocacy director Daniel Webb said in a statement the US deal proves Nauru and Manus Island were “dead ends”.
“This announcement is full of holes. No time frame, no numbers, no plan for what looks like the hundreds of people who will be left behind,” he said.
In a statement, Amnesty International called the deal “shameful”.
“It is absolutely shameful that the Australian government has first sent several thousand people to languish for three years on Nauru and Manus Island, set up an offshore processing regime on Nauru that amounts to torture and is now passing the buck when it comes to offering them protection,” refugee coordinator Dr Graham Thom said.
Mr Shorten said it would be hypocritical for Labor to reject the deal given its similarity to the Malaysia solution pushed by the Gillard government in 2011.
“Labor and Liberal are on a unity ticket to defeat the people smugglers,” Mr Shorten told reporters in Melbourne on Sunday.
‘Ring of steel’ underway
Mr Turnbull told media a “significant” defence operation – referred to as a “ring of steel” – was already underway to combat an expected increase in people smugglers off Australia’s north coast.
“We recognise that people smugglers will seek to exploit this announcement,” Mr Turnbull said.
According to the ABC, the number of officers deployed for the operation is a peacetime record in Australia.
Immigration Minister Peter Dutton said Nauru would remain an important part of Australia’s border protection operations.
“We still rely on regional processing, which is why Nauru will remain in its current status forever,” he said.