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Trump's Harsh Criticism Of Refugee Deal Sets Up Rift With Australia

AUDIE CORNISH, HOST:

Now, for a closer look at that refugee resettlement agreement between the U.S. and Australia that President Trump called a dumb deal, Australia has a hardline immigration policy that bans asylum seekers who arrive by boat from ever settling in Australia. Instead, they're sent to detention centers on two islands in the Pacific. The agreement between the U.S. and Australia concerns 1,250 of those refugees.

Earlier today, I spoke with Anna Neistat, the senior director of research at Amnesty International, and I asked her who these people are.

ANNA NEISTAT: We're talking about several thousand people who are on both of these islands, most of whom have been recognized as refugees. But Australia refuses to take them to Australia, and that's where the efforts to find another home for them came from.

And in the end of last year, a deal was reached between Australian and U.S. officials that U.S. will take - it was not entirely clear how many but clearly not all but perhaps the majority of those refugees in exchange for Australia taking some of the refugees - migrants that the U.S. doesn't want.

CORNISH: So Australia is the only country in the world that kind of sends its asylum seekers who arrive by boat - that sends them away, refuses to let them settle within its borders. So who are these refugees? Where do they come from?

NEISTAT: They come from a variety of different countries. The majority on Nauru where I spent some time investigating are from Iran, but there are also refugees from Iraq, Pakistan, Afghanistan, Somalia, Bangladesh, Sri Lanka. And I have to emphasize that they live in absolutely horrendous conditions.

CORNISH: So as we just heard President Trump say, why? Why are we doing this? What's the purpose?

NEISTAT: Yeah, well, one of the purposes is that U.S. has been, until just last week when President Trump decided to undo that, one of the big so-called re-settlers in the world. So U.S. has been doing this not just for this category of refugees, for many others as well. This was slightly different because it was a bilateral agreement. And this is one of the reasons that it was not directly covered by the executive orders that were signed by President Trump last week.

The executive orders in fact have a very specific clause that says that they would not apply to bilateral international agreements. And it seems like this clause was introduced specifically to honor the agreement with Australia and a few other situations.

CORNISH: If, as it appears, the president's current executive orders on refugees don't apply to this deal because it was, as you said, a one-on-one deal with Australia, what happens if Trump refuses the deal? What happens to these refugees?

NEISTAT: Well, I mean he probably would not be able to refuse it. It would need some undoing to basically not - he cannot just not honor an international agreement. It would require some proper process of cancellation.

But basically it is - you know, it is very unclear what's going to happen to these people. They have been on those islands for three years now. Quite honestly, it is primarily Australia's responsibility. But if Australia continues to refuse and if you (unintelligible) - backtracks from this deal, it is not impossible that other nations would come to the rescue.

CORNISH: And that was going to be my next question. If not the U.S., does Australia have other options? Does that country need to rethink its own policy?

NEISTAT: Well, Australia of course needs to rethink its own policy. And rethinking does not mean just finding other countries to ship its unwanted refugees to. And I mean I think what should be the focus of everybody's attention is not so much what, you know, the countries can or cannot get away with but what is best for the people who are stuck in this impossible situation.

CORNISH: That's Anna Neistat, senior director of research at Amnesty International. Thank you for speaking with us.

NEISTAT: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.