United States officials involved in orchestrating the Australia-US refugee deal have told Crikey that, like the United Nations High Commission for Refugees (UNHCR), they wanted Australia to do more to resettle refugees who had family members already in the country. Unlike the UNHCR, however, they understood this would not extend to people being held on Manus Island and Nauru.  

The two former senior US government officials, who talked to Crikey on the condition of anonymity, also spoke frankly about their concern for the conditions endured by refugees and asylum seekers on Manus Island and Nauru, and depicted this as an important factor in the US’ decision to help relocate them.

In interviews with Crikey, the former officials emphasised that their Australian counterparts made it clear they would not take any of the people currently held on Manus Island or Nauru. Having had this fact impressed upon them, both were surprised that High Commissioner Filippo Grandi yesterday alleged Australia had promised the UNHCR that it would resettle refugees currently held on the two Pacific islands who had “close family ties” in Australia, but that Australia later reneged on the commitment.

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Although the US sources did not have knowledge of agreements or conversations between the UNHCR and Australia, both said the general issue of refugee family reunions had been raised as Immigration Minister Peter Dutton and his representatives in Washington DC tried to convince the Americans to accept some of the approximately 2000 people stuck in limbo as a result of Australia’s policies of offshore detention and resettlement.

Like the UNHCR, US officials wanted Australia to do more to help reunite refugees who had been separated from family members already in Australia.

According to one account, the final US-Australia agreement to resettle refugees on Manus Island and Nauru in the US included a commitment from Australia to look at a handful of family reunion cases. This did not relate to people held on Manus Island or Nauru, instead referring to a small number of people stranded in places like Indonesia, outside of the detention network Australia oversees. The second former US official could not confirm whether this commitment made it into the final agreement, but said the US had discussed the issue of family reunions with Australia during the talks.

The UNHCR became involved in the agreement after Australia had approached the US but yesterday alleged Australia had abandoned a commitment that enabled it to do so.

“We agreed to do so on the clear understanding that vulnerable refugees with close family ties in Australia would ultimately be allowed to settle there,” the agency said in a statement. “UNHCR has recently been informed by Australia that it refuses to accept even these refugees, and that they, along with the others on Nauru and Papua New Guinea, have been informed that their only option is to remain where they are or to be transferred to Cambodia or to the United States.”

Quizzed on 7.30 about how exactly the UNHCR had been left with this impression in the first place, assistant high commissioner for protection Volker Turk said the understanding had arisen in meetings with Australian officials, including Immigration Minister Peter Dutton.

The Department of Immigration and Border Protection and Peter Dutton’s office did not respond to questions about whether Australia had agreed to look at the cases of refugees who had family members in Australia as part of the US deal. A spokesperson for the minister instead reiterated: “The position of the Coalition Government has been clear and consistent: those transferred to RPCs will never settle in Australia.”

At the time of publication, the US State Department had not responded to a request for comment.

Details about the conditions of the quietly negotiated Australia-US agreement have only partially emerged since the deal was announced by Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull in November last year.

In May, former assistant secretary for state Anne Richard went on the record with the ABC and confirmed Australia’s commitment to take a small number of refugees from Central America was informally linked to the US-Australia resettlement agreement. Richard briefly referred to a number of other factors at play in the deal and said the US had hoped Australia would look to reunite families that had been “split up”.

Shortly after that interview, the Department of Immigration and Border Protection confirmed at Senate estimates they were working on the cases of just 30 individuals in Costa Rica.

Beyond their comments about the specifics of the deal, both US sources who spoke to Crikey portrayed their government — then operating under President Barack Obama and in the process of increasing the number of refugees it accepted — as hesitant to reward Australia for its hardline refugee policies. Reports of poor conditions on Manus Island and Nauru helped persuade them that the best outcome was for the US to resettle the people itself.

Their motivation was, as one source put it, to “get those people out of there”.