Last night, reports emerged that Donald Trump had blasted Australian Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull via phone over a refugee resettlement deal. He ranted and raved about his electoral college win (please stop. Please?) and rated the call against his other calls that day (it was the worst apparently), before abruptly ending the chat 35 minutes earlier than scheduled.
As an Aussie living in New York, both sides of my social media went into meltdown. Our Prime Minister, attempting to pretend everything was fine and normal, insisted on radio that the conversation had merely been "frank," and that the U.S. was standing by its commitment to resettle our asylum seekers.
A few hours later, just as I was in the middle of arguing with people whether Turnbull was acting in the best interests of himself or the refugees by staying quiet and refusing to criticize the President, Trump went ahead and broke my Twitter feed:
A lot of Trump supporters on Twitter seem to be echoing those sentiments. There is confusion. “WHY is nobody asking why Australia wants to get rid of these illegals?” There is suspicion. “There is a reason. What is it?” This is not helped by Trump reportedly accusing Turnbull of trying to send the U.S. the next Boston bomber.
So what’s the deal with the deal? Why are we Australians trying to foist refugees onto the U.S. that we are unwilling to take ourselves?
It’s complicated. Australia has a refugee policy that is a source of national shame for many. For years Australian governments of both sides have struggled with the issue of asylum seekers — those seeking international protection whose refugee status is yet to be determined — who arrive by boat to our waterlocked country. The majority of asylum seekers do not arrive by boat, and it’s not illegal to seek asylum in such a way, but successive governments have tried to deter people from doing so, purportedly to prevent the loss of lives at sea.
The deterrent both major parties agree upon is thus: “Asylum seekers who come here by boat without a visa will never be settled in Australia.” While Australia settles around 13,750 refugees each year, none of those who arrive by boat will ever be among them, according to the stance the government has taken.
But this doesn’t exactly provide an answer for those who, desperate enough to reach Australia to attempt a treacherous journey-by-sea, already have. For some years now, Australia has been placing these asylum seekers, many of whom are children, in secretive offshore "processing centers" in the Pacific Islands, where they remain for years at a time in horrible conditions, many with no clear end in sight. Some attempt suicide and reports of abuse are common. Many compassionate Australians want to #bringthemhere, but neither side of government look likely to do so anytime soon. Other solutions to ending this human suffering seem few and far between, and so these innocent human beings live on in misery and uncertainty.
That is, before Obama and Turnbull struck a deal in November that would see the U.S. resettle 1,250 of the refugees living in these detention centers (with Australia accepting refugees from a Costa Rican facility in return). It would be a one-off deal, because that whole “deterrent” line of argument wouldn’t work so well were it not. Australians such as myself have been watching what Trump will do closely following the immigration ban — whether one supports the deal or considers it a shirking of responsibility, this was a way to finally end the travesty and find these poor detainees a much-deserved home.
The White House has promised to honor the deal, in what I saw as one of the only good things this administration had done. Until yesterday's shit show. The future of the deal is now entirely unclear. Although our guy keeps insisting it’s going ahead.
Trump supporters online seem to think Australia is trying to palm off its "illegal immigrants" because they are somehow dangerous or a threat to national security. It’s not. It’s because a stubborn parliament has tied itself to this unfortunate, inhumane hard line. There’s nothing dangerous or illegal about these people. Dealmaker Trump is now calling the Obama-Turnbull deal “dumb” and asking why Obama signed it, as if a humanitarian deal needs to be advantageous in some way. He’s promising to study it (because he hadn’t before the call?), while repeatedly misquoting the number of refugees involved.
Of far less importance than the human lives at stake is the scandalizing diplomatic fallout between the U.S. and Australia, one of America's closest (if not the closest) allies.
American Twitter leapt to Australian Twitter’s defense, apologizing on Trump’s behalf and joking about picking foolhardy fights with boxing kangaroos and giant spiders.
Meanwhile, Republicans are falling over themselves to emphasize the importance of the Australia-US alliance. The diplomatic situation is so ridiculous it's almost funny, because Trump keeps contradicting Turnbull, because Trump is Trump, and because our relationship with the U.S. is stronger than this loon (for now).
But it’s also... not funny. I’ve been experiencing most of Trump’s actions as a New Yorker: mourning, freaking out, spending too much time on Twitter at 1am, showing up at impromptu protests, getting my friends to call their senators, and feeling a general sense of horror. But it was truly something else to hear Trump (allegedly) treat one's own Prime Minister like dirt. As much as we may dislike Mr. Turnbull — many are openly enjoying this dressing down— he’s still our head of state*. We can talk shit about him, but to hear Trump show so little respect to our PM is deeply offensive in a way I would never have expected.
I have now experienced Trump as an Australian, as a citizen of one of the countries which Donald "America First" Trump doesn’t regard highly enough to speak respectfully to its leader.
And my feelings are actually a little bit hurt.
But not nearly as hurt as my feelings for those poor innocent people living in hell whom Obama took pity on and whom Trump considers "a dumb deal."
*The Queen is actually our head of state, but that’s another story
Top image via The Simpsons, "Bart vs Australia"
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