On Wednesday night, the foreign policy world was atwitter over reports of a heated phone call between President Trump and the prime minister of Australia, Malcolm Turnbull, about refugees intercepted while trying to enter Australia. The media ran with the story. Conflict gets clicks, after all. But while news reports focused on the controversy and chaos that came from this dust-up with our antipodean ally, the underlying question is strangely untouched: why should the United States accept refugees from Australia?
Accepting refugees from Syria and Iraq is a more straightforward question, whether you agree with it or not. Someone leaving those countries and arriving here is exiting a war-torn hell hole and entering a paradise.
Even sharing the burden of refugee resettlement makes some sense when you consider that many Near Eastern refugees cannot get themselves to the United States and are packed into teeming camps in nearby Jordan, Lebanon, and Turkey. Those countries are poorer than ours and lack the capacity to house millions of newly homeless foreigners. Other states with more money and room (like the Gulf Arab states) might be expected to help out.
But Australia? Australia is as rich as we are and even more sparsely populated. It is, like the United States, a nation heavily settled by immigrants that continues to admit immigrants today. Yet we are meant to believe that refugees who make it to Australia cannot possibly stay there. What’s more, we are told it is America’s responsibility to fix the situation.
Former President Obama accepted this line of thinking. It is not surprising that Trump disagrees, but it may be surprising to Trump sceptics that he actually has a point.
Australia’s Boat People
The refugee crisis in Australia is not new. Australia’s aboriginal community is small, and about 97.5 percent of Australians are the descendants of immigrants. In this, they are not dissimilar to the United States (Native Americans make up about 1 percent of our population) but their later relationship with immigration has historically been more restrictive.
Until the 1970s, they only let white people in. Since then, immigration to Australia is not restricted by race but, as in our own country, the people remain wary of massive influxes of refugees. As more refugees began to arrive in the 1980s, their federal government responded. As Australian law professor Jane McAdam explained in a 2013 article,
In 1992, [the Labor Party] instituted a policy of mandatory detention. Originally, it was intended as a temporary and exceptional measure for a second wave of Indochinese ‘boat people’, mainly from Cambodia, but later was extended to all ‘unlawful non-citizens’ for bureaucratic efficiency. The then Minister for Immigration, Gerry Hand, explained that the government was determined ‘that a clear signal be sent that migration to Australia may not be achieved by simply arriving in this country and expecting to be allowed into the community’.
That policy remains in effect, and it determined what came next. In the first decade of the twenty-first century, Australia’s new Liberal government (the Liberal Party is actually conservative there) initiated the “Pacific Solution.” That meant intercepting the refugees’ boats at sea and removing them to detention centers.
The twist was that the centers, operated by the Australian government, were actually located in the nearby countries of Papua New Guinea and Nauru. When Labor was back in charge of the government, they vowed to close the camps. Instead, they ended up keeping them, and even expanding them in some ways.
As successive Australian governments have resisted admitting the refugees from the island camps on a permanent basis, and the refugees would not (or could not) go back to their former homes, a state of legal limbo has developed for the roughly 2,000 people stranded there. Propelled by the instability that continues to engulf Afghanistan and other areas, the refugees keep coming. The result is not unlike our Guantanamo Bay prison, but for refugees rather than terrorists. Human rights advocates have attacked the Pacific Solution for years, alleging international law violations.
How Is This America’s Problem?
If you noticed that the United States was not mentioned in any of this, you are not alone. Australia’s refugee problem may be an Australian problem, and it may be an Afghan problem, but it is not clear that it is an American problem. We entered the picture, nonetheless, in 2016. The Obama administration struck a deal with Turnbull’s government to take the refugees into our country.
Is Trump right about “this dumb deal,” as he calls it? What interest does America have in solving Australia’s problem? The Washington Post reported that it “has never been clear whether Australia offered anything in return for Washington’s concession.” The Economist suggests that we may be trading refugees for refugees, accepting the population of Australia’s camps in exchange for them taking some Central American refugees from us.
If true, this is even more bizarre than taking them on humanitarian grounds. Either way, it is none of America’s business. Given Trump’s isolationist tendencies, it is predictable that he would wish to renegotiate the agreement.
Much of the furor in the press about the Trump-Turnbull contretemps has focused on the problem of Trump alienating an ally. While the media were far more reluctant to mention that Obama strained relations with other, equally longstanding allies, it does not mean they are wrong to point it out now when Trump does it. The United States has much in common with Australia and we have long been allied. But that alliance and friendship does not explain why we should play any role in their immigration drama.
In 1998, Madeleine Albright called America “the indispensable nation.” With Obama’s rejection of the idea of American exceptionalism, this idea has lost favor among Democrats, but remains cherished by many Republicans, if not by the president. There are many problems around the world that cannot be solved without America’s involvement, and many more that have been allowed to get worse because of America’s acquiescence. But not every solution must be an American solution.
In the World Wars and the Cold War, America’s involvement could not be dispensed with. The same is true with the War on Terror. But the fate of 2,000 migrants is surely something the Australians can handle on their own.
Whether we like it or not, we are the world’s policeman. But we are not the world’s concierge. Just as you don’t call the cops every time something bugs you, the nations of the world—even our longstanding allies—should not dial 911 whenever something in their domestic politics gets uncomfortable. Australia’s refugee crisis is unpleasant for them (and even more unpleasant for the refugees) and solving it requires making hard choices, but it is a problem the Turnbull government is eminently capable of solving themselves.