Deal to resettle refugees agreed by US and Australian in late 2016
Around 1,200 refugees kept in offshore detention camps on Pacific islands
In the wake of a leaked phone call in which US President Donald Trump repeatedly called them “bad” and “prisoners,” refugees at the center of a controversial deal between the US and Australia say they have lost faith in ever making it to America.
“We are really hopeless,” said Shirdel Eskandari Khah, an Iranian refugee who lives with his wife and seven-year-old son on the Pacific island of Nauru.
“We believe that it is another game from the US and Australian governments.”
Under the terms of a deal settled by the Obama administration, the US agreed to vet and then resettle nearly 1,200 refugees like Eskandari Khah, who have been living for years in or around offshore detention camps run by the Australian government. In return, Canberra would take a group of Central American refugees who had been attempting to make it to the US.
The offshore camps – on Nauru and Papua New Guinea – are key to Australia’s immigration policy. Anyone who arrives by boat without a visa is told they will never be able to settle on Australian soil and sent to the island camps for processing.
Canberra claims its stance has stopped the flow across the Pacific of dangerous boats run by people smugglers. Critics say it has led to the detention of hundreds of refugees – including young children – for years in conditions damaging to their mental and physical health.
Internal files from the Nauru camps leaked last year documented a catalog of self-harm attempts, violent altercations, hunger strikes, incidents of sexual assault and child abuse at a center described by Amnesty International as an “open-air prison.”
The Australian government has disputed some of the claims in the leaked documents and said Amnesty’s description of Nauru was “absolutely false.”
In a call with Australian Prime Minister Malcom Turnbull in January, Trump described the deal he inherited as “horrible,” “disgusting” and an “embarrassment.”
In transcripts of the conversation, first published by the Washington Post, Turnbull took pains to emphasize to Trump that under the deal the US just had to vet the refugees – it was not compelled to accept them unapproved and could refuse to settle any.
The White House would not confirm the authenticity of the transcripts, branding them leaked classified documents.
Turnbull said Friday he was thankful to Trump for honoring the deal, adding it was “better when these conversations remain confidential.”
“This is a big deal,” Turnbull told Trump, according to the transcripts. “It is really, really important to us that we maintain it. It does not oblige you to take one person that you do not want.”
Later in the call, Trump asked: “Suppose I vet them closely and I do not take any?”
“That is the point I have been trying to make,” Turnbull responded.
‘They don’t care’
Refugee Yasaman Bagheri, 19, said Turnbull and Trump’s conversation exposed for her that the agreement was a “fake deal.”
“They don’t care about people,” she said. “They are willing to sacrifice innocent people, women and children to make their political point.”
Bagheri has been living on Nauru since she was 15, but said she can no longer bear the poor conditions and lack of opportunities.
Her family has applied to the US resettlement program, and she remembered how happy everyone in the camp had been when it was first announced.
Eskandari Khah has also signed up for the program. He has been interviewed twice by US officials, most recently in February, and had his fingerprints taken, but said he has not heard anything about his application in months.
Last week, refugees on Nauru began to hold regular demonstrations, with one of the demands being for an update on the status of the US program.
Carter Langston, a spokesman for the US Citizenship and Immigration Services, said the resettlement deal was ongoing and the department was planning upcoming trips to the camps.
“Refugee resettlement applicants of all nationalities are subject to rigorous background security checks,” he said in a statement.
State Department guidelines say under normal circumstances vetting can take between 18 and 24 months.
But on Nauru, some refugees’ patience is running out. Bagheri said she no longer believes anyone will be accepted.
“It’s just a game to kill time, to keep the refugees here and make them not protest,” she said.
CNN’s Tal Kopan, Kara Fox and Hilary Whiteman contributed reporting.