The “Dumb Deal”– Trading refugees for security of sorts!

Malcolm Turnbull, Prime Minister of Australia finally had his first meeting last night with US President Donald Trump on the Intrepid, a huge decommissioned aircraft carrier, hours late and shortened to just half an hour. The location was a giant floating military base, which now sits off a pier in the Hudson River on the west of Manhattan, serves as a museum to showcase the wonders of old military hardware and battles fought at sea. The rationale of the dinner was to celebrate the 75th anniversary of the Battle of the Coral Sea during World War Two. The battle, jointly fought with US and Australian troops, helped to foil Japanese attempts to expand its reach further into the Pacific and potentially invade Australia. The symbolism was clear. A ceremony to remember one great battle that forged a military alliance that made Australia the trusted ears and eyes of the US in Asia Pacific, as well as an ally on the battleground of wars fought since, from Korea, to Vietnam to Afghanistan and Iraq.

It seems more than ironic that the only time since the Battle of the Coral Sea that Australia has been threatened by invasion, stems from the fallout of this world order in the form of refugees. A Cold War that left a litany of covert operations that fueled real war and instability in many parts of Asia, Africa and Latin America, is now compounded by the tragic failings of wars in Afghanistan, Iraq, Libya, Somalia and Syria. The cost of this global instability along with climate change has left an estimated 65 million people around the world, displaced or stateless.

The threat of invasion from boat people or “queue jumpers” as they are often referred, has animated a fear that has allowed Australia to rationalize inhumane disregard for international law and demonstrate a stunning lack of dignity or compassion to fellow human beings. The abuse committed by Australia in the detention centers of Nauru and PNG have been well documented by human rights organizations. The fate of 1250 people has been held as a bargaining chip in a strange deal the politicians have rationalized as in our best interest. The logic is that since these people didn’t line up and wait their turn to legally come into the country then they should be punished. A punishment which the prevailing public logic thinks will deter others from taking the risk to come. While it may reflect Australians sense of fairness about waiting our turn, it sadly demonstrates little understanding of the terrible plight of people escaping war and mayhem in their own countries in a desperate attempt to seek safety.

Donald Trump was right when he called the refugee swap with Australia a dumb deal. For any outsider, it appears strange that a country as rich as Australia and with many countries already hosting hundreds of thousands of refugees, would be so desperate to get rid of 1250 people. Sadly, the deal agreed with President Obama, was not Australia’s first embarrassing attempt to get rid of the refugees. The country offered Cambodia 55 million dollars to take those who would willingly go. Counted as part of our aid to the country, only a handful of people went. Trump’s reaction to the deal was clearly an honest one. Why would a President who actively seeks to block refugees from coming into the US, want to take on someone else’s problem?

After the infamous call with Turnbull, where Trump had obviously not read his brief on the special relationship with Australia, there has been back peddling. Since then Senator John McCain to Vice President Pence have done their best to reassure Australia it would honor the agreement. One can only speculate on the details of backroom deal. But it is clear the essence is for continued support to the alliance through military intelligence, more marines based in Northern Australia, troop commitments in the endless war on terror and the political support for future wars. The facial nature of this deal is that it can still be honored, even the US doesn’t take a single refugee. Media reports indicate this uncertainty has only added to the psychological burden of those detained, many afraid and many of the single men, especially those who are Muslim, unlikely to even qualify.

So, while there was a lot of pressure to get Turnbull and Trump to meet, a dinner on an old war ship celebrating battles fought in World War Two appears fraught with new dangers. As clearly articulated in Trump’s Make America Great Again agenda, military supremacy is a number one priority. Surrounded by Generals, not only does Trump want to increase the defense budget at the cost of aid and diplomacy, he wants allies to share more of the financial cost of this war machine. One only as to look at the threats to NATO to increase defense expenditure to two percent of GDP and the push for South Korea to foot the billion dollar price tag to build Thad to see it in practice.

With the photo op secured, the price tag seems frighteningly high. The partnership seems stuck in a scary time warp. No inspiring vision of building a better regional partnership based on trade, or solving shared global challenges like the refugee crisis or climate change. Instead, along with unending war with ISIS, a militarized response to the rise of China and the troubles in the Korea Peninsula indicate military security remain the central tenet of this alliance. As Australia continuing to serve as the loyal lieutenant, the message being sent is that the way to stay safe and avoid invasion, is to celebrate the power of military might against an ever-growing list of enemies, and a future built on a pulpit of threats and conflict. And in return for this enduring relationship, protection from invasion, this time not from a conquering army but by a shameful and “dumb deal” to take 1250 “boat people” off our hands.

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