Updated 4 months ago

The Central American refugee deal between the US and Australia

Australian prime minister, Malcolm Turnbull, announced Australia’s participation in the US-led program to resettle Central American refugees from a Costa Rican camp after attending President Obama’s leaders’ summit on refugees in September.

Aside from a surprise in Costa Rica at his announcement, little attention has been given to the details of this new policy or about the camp itself. This is particularly notable now, with Turnbull’s reiterated immigration policy not to settle any illegal maritime arrivals. Many of the central American refugees will have crossed their borders “illegally” via overland “coyotes”.

Though critics might concentrate on whether this announcement was Turnbull’s price of entry to the summit or even speculate it is part of a long-executed agenda to woo power player America, it is important to unpack and understand what this new decision means tangibly for the migrants and us in Australia.

So, what do we know about the camp in Costa Rica? What is the US-led humanitarian migration program? What are they fleeing from? And after all, what does this mean for Australia?

The US-led humanitarian program in Costa Rica
People have been fleeing serious gang violence in the northern triangle of Central America (NTCA) – El Salvador, Guatemala and Honduras. Honduras, for example, is the second most dangerous country to live after Syria as gang members target young boys to recruit, destroy businesses and abuse girls and women. Honduras’s murder rate is the highest in the world at 90.4 homicides per 100,000 in 2013, according to the UN Office of Drugs and Crime. The world’s average is 6.2. Armed gang members are destroying local businesses. The police or law enforcement does not deliver criminal justice. No rule of law is in proper place. Highly corrupt governments fail to protect its citizens.

Gang violence is not strictly covered by the 1951 Refugee Convention. Migrants fleeing from gang violence fear their safety back home but they do not face “state” persecution. However, corrupt officials involved in violence can justify the failure to protect their citizens, therefore it is indirect state persecution by non-action. Critics in the US also said granting NTCA migrants a refugee status was a redefinition of a refugee. But the Obama administration acknowledged the urgency of this humanitarian crisis where innocent children were targeted by gang members.

Violence has detrimental long-term side effects. Poverty, economic stagnation, and malfunctioning public services, including hospitals and schools, are indirect consequences of the state failure to guarantee public safety and personal security.

Furthermore, severe droughts have worsened the conditions in Central America. Even worse, there was Hurricane Matthew in September 2016. The flows of humanitarian migrants fleeing from violence, poverty and natural disasters are likely to continue and grow. Women and children are particularly vulnerable. Unaccompanied minors and mothers with children have been crossing borders to the US and Mexico.

Early this year, the Obama administration announced it would work with the UNHCR and IOM to process refugees from Central America, on top of the in-country program opened in December 2015. At the regional level, the high-level roundtable among nine countries in North and Central Americas concluded a series of comprehensive recommendations in San José, to address the plight of people fleeing violence in El Salvador, Guatemala and Honduras (San Jose Action Statement).

In July, the government of Costa Rica entered into a Protection Transfer Arrangement (PTA) with the UNHCR and the IOM to receive applicants most in need of immediate protection after pre-screening by the US government in their countries of origin.

Costa Rica’s refugees from the Northern Triangle of Central America
According to the UNHCR, there were 1,830 new applications registered in Costa Rica in 2015, which was a 60% increase from 2014. Among them, 890 were from the NTCA, a 127% increase from the previous year.

Most NTCA migrants are Christian. In Honduras, 47% are Roman Catholic and another 41% are Protestant. In El Salvador, 57% are Catholic and 21% are Protestant. In El Salvador, abortion is subject to jail terms even when pregnancy is caused by rape and the pregnant woman is under age. Same in Guatemala. 87% are Christian.

The PTA is an innovative emergency resettlement mechanism that can process up to 200 individuals at heightened risk. It has undergone its initial pilot phase. First beneficiaries come from El Salvador and are being relocated to the US. Discussions are under way with potential additional transit and destination countries. This includes Australia.

Concerns over integration and public health
The main reason Central American refugees want to go to the US is that it’s the richest country in their region where they already have families and friends to rely on. They find jobs, schools, and survival tips through these social networks which is an important pull factor for migrants. For this reason, even Costa Rica is not easy for them to integrate successfully.

Australia may be an attractive place for Central American refugees, but it’s far away from their countries of origin across the Pacific where they may not necessarily have the networks to support them. For refugees’ smooth transition and successful integration, they need co-ethnic community and businesses to offer jobs for their self-reliance and successful integration. Governments alone can’t support newly arriving migrants who may end up relying on government subsidies. They need community support and engagement.

Spread of Zika raises another serious concern for those travelling across Central America. Zika has been categorised as a pandemic disease by the World Health Organisation, which causes birth defects in babies born to mothers with the virus. Cases were reported in 20 countries in Central America, including the Northern Triangle. The prevalence of gang violence and the absence of proper public health systems in the region make it difficult for health professionals to reach patients and eradicate the disease. If the virus spreads further in the region, migration flows would increase.

What it means for Australia
When questioned by journalists at the September summit in New York,Turnbull denied that there was a “people swap” deal with the US taking refugees from Nauru and Manus Island. After two months, the government announced a new US deal to transfer some of the detainees from Nauru and Manus to the US. It’s difficult not to think of it as a swap deal. Not a 1-1 refugee swap but a bundle swap. We still don’t know what’s in the bundle.

Now with Trump winning the election and implementing the deal (or no deal), the faith of refugees in both camps looks quite bleak. He may think it’s not a fair deal to swap Muslim refugees from Nauru with Christian minors from Costa Rica. Turnbull is renegotiating with Malaysia, calling the Cambodia deal a success.

Instead of speculating unknown details of the Australian-US deal over vulnerable populations across the Pacific, however, we need to think about the consequences of this policy decision in the regional context.

What we do know is that, as of September 2016, they are 1,269 detainees, including 45 children, in Nauru and Papua New Guinea who are mostly genuine refugees. They won’t be settled in Australia but will be sent to the US. The swap deal sounds like an ideologically-trapped solution to a very simple problem in a lengthy, expensive and complicated manner.

Every refugee counts – whether they are onshore, offshore or far away across the Pacific. For some, this new policy is a surprising opportunity. Unfortunately, for others, Australia will never be a welcoming new home, no matter how close they are already.