February 20, 2018


They lived in limbo in Australian offshore camps for years. Now they call the US home. (Shirin Jaafari, 2/19/18, PRI's The World)

[I]n 2016, Australia and the US agreed to a deal. The US would consider resettling about 1,200 refugees from Australia's detention centers in exchange for Australia taking refugees, mostly from Central America, who are trying to come to the US.

Anne Richard, former US assistant secretary of state for population, refugees and migration, oversaw and signed the deal. She says while on a trip to South Asia, a reporter had asked her about Australia's standing as a refugee destination.

"I said it was slipping as a refugee destination in part because of their policy to push back boats."

In 2013, Australia adopted a policy by which it would turn around or tow boats that carried migrants headed for its shores.

Richard's comments launched a series of meetings between her and Australian officials. Shortly after those meetings, Richard says, the Australians came to her with a proposal.

"We were surprised by it," she recalls. "Their proposal was not something that we had heard about in advance."

But it was good timing.

"President Obama wanted us to bring more refugees to the United States," Richard says. "He wanted a significant increase in the number of refugees we were bringing in every year. So, this fit in with the overall policy."

These discussions were happening around the time when thousands of refugees were dying trying to make it to Europe. At the time when the body of a lifeless, Syrian toddler, Aylan Kurdi, washed up on the shores of Turkey and made global headlines.

"The whole world woke up to the fact that there were massive numbers of people uprooted and on the move," Richard explains. So the US wanted to help.

Related: How Eaten Fish survived four years in refugee detention with his cartoons, social media and a network of activist friends

A year later, the two countries reached a deal.

Richard says the details of the deal remain classified but "the overall impetus on the part of the US was, 'We will take these people. We will take large numbers of people from Australia, but [Australia] should do a number of things.'"

One thing that we do know Australia had to do in return: accept refugees from Central America.

Why Central America? Because of what's known as a protection transfer arrangement.

Before the talks with Australia, there had been a spike in gang violence in Central America. People from Honduras, El Salvador and Guatemala were desperate to flee. Many wanted to come to the US.

To help manage the situation, the International Organization for Migration, the United Nations and the Costa Rican government negotiated an agreement. It went something like this: Residents of one of the countries in the northern triangle (Honduras, El Salvador and Guatemala) who approached the UN or the US embassy in their home country and said they had been targeted by gangs and feared for their life, could be relocated to the safety of Costa Rica and be interviewed for possible relocation to the US.

Posted by at February 20, 2018 7:15 PM