Fragile souls at the center of Trump's spat with Australia

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Story highlights

  • The state of limbo of Australia's refugees is dangerous for their health, David Manne argues
  • Their suffering "has seemed endless"

David Manne is the executive director at Refugee Legal, which provides legal representation to some of the people sent to Nauru and Papua New Guinea. The opinions expressed in this commentary are his.

(CNN)As a new era begins in US foreign policy, there are around 2,500 people, the great majority of whom are refugees, closely monitoring news of these events with a very direct, very personal interest.

The fate of these people, who have been held in prolonged limbo in Nauru and Papua New Guinea, hangs heavily on the future of the deal struck between the US Obama administration and Australia to resettle 1,250 of them in the US in an apparent exchange for refugees from Central America.
The recent brinkmanship between US President Donald Trump and Australian Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull over the fate of the refugee deal has attracted intense interest internationally.
So far, attention has focused largely on its ramifications for the deal and future relations between the two hitherto close allies, and the broader implications for US foreign policy not only on refugees and migration, but for relations with other States.
But what about the consequences for those people caught up in all of this -- the 2,500 children, women and men with heartbeats who have been marooned on Nauru and Manus Island for years?
Their future hangs on the deal.
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Refugees detained

More than four years ago, they arrived by sea in Australia seeking safety as refugees, only to be exiled for "offshore processing" in these impoverished Pacific nations under Australia's hardline "border protection" policies.
Many had fled from extreme brutality and oppression in countries like Afghanistan, Iraq, Syria, Somalia and Iran. This explains why the majority have been judged to be refugees needing international protection.
Yet these vulnerable people have since been subjected to deeply inhumane and degrading conditions, effectively funded and controlled by Australia, in these Pacific nations.
A swathe of reports by bodies such as the UN Refugee Agency, Human Rights Watch and Amnesty International have documented this treatment and consistently found that it violates fundamental human rights and causes untold harm to people held there.

New hopes dashed

Until recently, their suffering has seemed endless because a central plank of Australian government policy is a total ban on these refugees ever being able to resettle in Australia.
It is largely due to successive governments having locked themselves into policies of deterrence where protection of borders has been prioritized at the expense of protection of people. As a result, people arriving by boat seeking asylum are barred from applying for protection in Australia and are either being turned back at sea or sent to offshore processing.
With no other viable prospects for resettlement in sight, this human warehousing has had the effect of extinguishing hope and deepening despair, resulting in severe damage to the refugees' physical, emotional and psychological health.
This is why for many of these refugees, the announcement last year that the Obama administration had agreed with Australia to resettle some of them instilled some crucial hope where none had seemed to exist.
Of course, it should never have come to this.
Australia should have honored its obligations under the Refugees Convention by processing and providing protection in Australia to people judged to be refugees, instead of asking the US to shoulder those responsibilities.
But, however aberrant the deal, it has presented the only realistic option for these people to rebuild their lives in safety and with dignity; an option many have been desperate to pursue.
And yet, at the time of writing, it's still not clear what will happen.

Confusion

Confusion and contradiction surround communications from US President Donald Trump and his administration. The deal has shifted from being shrouded in secrecy to being shrouded in uncertainty. The latest commitments by Trump to honor the deal appear to come with huge caveats.
Although the present mood appears to be mixed, most are torn between hope and despair. Some remain numbed by it all.
Given the hope raised by the deal, ongoing uncertainty is likely to cast people into further despair about whether they will ever find a decent future in safety.
None of this is helped by central questions remaining unanswered. This means these refugees still don't know how many will be chosen for resettlement, who will deemed eligible, or how long it will take.
Trump's insistence that an additional "extreme vetting" be applied to anyone seeking resettlement adds further uncertainty, particularly given that what it means or adds to existing processes remains a mystery. Both the US and Australia already apply very stringent security vetting processes for any refugees resettled. As noted by the Cato Institute, a libertarian think-tank, this vetting has been highly effective.
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If the deal is ultimately derailed, it will be a devastating blow for those who had hoped to settle in the US. Many have already put their names forward and are being interviewed by officials in the hope of a US visa.
Mental health experts have previously warned that unless swift action is taken to restore hope, many more women, men and children will express their despair by trying to harm or kill themselves.
This danger is rooted in the fact that literally no other realistic resettlement options have been identified by Australia. Neither Papua New Guinea nor Nauru has the will or capacity to provide safe and sustainable futures for those held there.
The only other option, Cambodia -- a country impoverished, unsafe and utterly unsuitable for resettlement -- has disintegrated, with people clearly unwilling to go to such a place.
As it stands, no other suitable country appears willing to take in these people. This is hardly surprising given that the international refugee framework is based on cooperation and burden-sharing between countries. In practice, this requires countries to protect refugees who seek sanctuary in their territory.
This predicament compels an urgent rethink by the Turnbull Government which must involve resettlement of these people in Australia where they can rebuild their lives. Australia can honor its international obligations and can in turn avoid being beholden to the US under a new leader whose commitment to refugee protection remains highly questionable.
We must not lose sight of the dire plight of the more than 2,000 people stuck in Nauru and Papua New Guinea. It is their lives which are at stake. So too is the commitment to fundamental principles of humanity which underpin the global compact for protection of refugees.
Editor's Note: David Manne is the executive director at Refugee Legal, which provides legal representation to some of the people sent to Nauru and Papua New Guinea. The opinions expressed in this commentary are his.