What We Know About the Refugee Resettlement Deal Obama Forged With Australia

The deal was forged by President Obama within days of Donald Trump's election.

February 2, 2017, 3:30 PM

— -- Days after the Australian government said U.S. President Donald Trump confirmed his administration will honor a refugee resettlement deal forged between the allies during the Obama administration, Trump questioned the arrangement and criticized it as “dumb.”

The American president wrote on Twitter late Wednesday: “Do you believe it? The Obama Administration agreed to take thousands of illegal immigrants from Australia. Why? I will study this dumb deal!”

Here’s what is known about the Australia-U.S. deal on resettling refugees:

When Was the Deal Struck and Why?

The Australian government announced on Nov. 13 that it had reached a resettlement deal with U.S. President Barack Obama's administration for some of the refugees detained at two remote Pacific islands after trying to reach Australia by boat. Under the agreement, Australia would hand over some refugees currently held at offshore detention centers on Nauru and Papua New Guinea’s Manus Island to the United States.

“U.S. authorities will conduct their own assessment of refugees and decide which people are resettled in the U.S.,” Australia’s prime minister and the minister for immigration and border protection said in a joint statement at the time. “Refugees will need to satisfy standard requirements for admission into the U.S., including passing health and security checks. This process will take time and the resettlement will be gradual.”

The arrangement would be administered by the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees. Only refugees in those detention centers at the time the deal was declared would be eligible. The Australian government said it would “continue to support the governments of Nauru and Papua New Guinea to return people not to be owed protection” back to their countries of origin.

At the time, Australia had existing arrangements for resettling refugees with Cambodia and Papua New Guinea.

The vast majority of asylum-seekers and refugees detained on Nauru and Manus Island are from Iran, according to the Australian government.

“Settlement in Australia will never be an option for those found to [be] refugees in regional processing centers nor for anyone who attempts to travel to Australia illegally by boat in the future,” the ministers said in the statement.

The deal came after two advocacy groups, Human Rights Watch and Amnesty International, released a joint report on Aug. 2 claiming “severe abuse, inhumane treatment and neglect” inflicted on asylum seekers -- many of them children -- being held in detention centers in Nauru. The report said an Australian agency had used the island nation to house about 1,200 refugees seeking to resettle in Australia.

The report alleged that the Australian government blatantly ignored abuses on the island in order to deliberately deter refugees from arriving to its country by boat.

“Australia’s policy of exiling asylum seekers who arrive by boat is cruel in the extreme,” Anna Neistat, senior director for research at Amnesty International, said in a statement at the time. “Few other countries go to such lengths to deliberately inflict suffering on people seeking safety and freedom."

Michael Bochenek, senior counsel on children’s rights at Human Rights Watch, added: “Driving adult and even child refugees to the breaking point with sustained abuse appears to be one of Australia’s aims on Nauru.”

The Australian Government Department of Immigration and Border Protection responded to the report following its release in a statement saying, "Many of the incident reports reflect unconfirmed allegations or uncorroborated statements and claims -- they are not statements of proven fact."

The government agency went on to say that all refugees living in the community are encouraged to report criminal incidents to the Nauru Police Force and that many of the matters remain under investigation.

"The Department currently has no evidence to suggest that service providers have under-reported or mis-reported incidents in Nauru," the agency said in the statement. “It also takes seriously its role in supporting the government of Nauru to protect children from abuse, neglect or exploitation.”

Was the Deal Discussed With Trump?

Australian Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull said the deal was a topic of conversation during Sunday’s “constructive” telephone call with Trump. The discussion came after Trump signed an executive order on Jan. 27 suspending the entry of all refugees into the United States for 120 days.

During the call, Trump told Turnbull his administration would “honor the existing agreement” between their countries on resettling refugees, according to the Australian prime minister.

“We discussed the importance of border security and the threat of illegal and irregular migration, and recognized that it is vital that every nation is able to control who comes across its borders,” Turnbull said at a news conference in Canberra on Monday. “We also discussed the resettlement arrangement of refugees from Nauru and Manus, which had been entered into with the previous administration, and I thank President Trump for his commitment to honor that existing agreement.”

The Washington Post first reported that the deal was a flashpoint during their conversation, with Trump becoming heated over this arrangement made under the Obama administration. The White House has not responded to ABC News’ requests for comment.

The official White House readout of the call said the two leaders spoke for 25 minutes, but it made no mention of the deal or other topics of conversation. It merely stated: “Both leaders emphasized the enduring strength and closeness of the U.S.-Australia relationship that is critical for peace, stability, and prosperity in the Asia-Pacific region and globally."

When asked about the president's call with Australia's prime minister, White House press secretary Sean Spicer told reporters at a briefing today that Trump had a "very cordial conversation" with Turnbull. But the two leaders had an "extensive discussion" on the deal to resettle refugees, which Trump is "extremely upset with," Spicer said.

"The president is unbelievably disappointed in the previous administration's deal that was made and how poorly it was crafted and the threat to national security it put the United States on," Spicer told reporters. “The deal that was cut by the last administration is something that he is extremely, extremely upset with. He does not like it."

Spicer said the president, out of "tremendous respect" for Turnbull and the Australian people, has "agreed to continue to review that deal," but the refugees will be subject to "extreme vetting."

The Australian prime minister refused to comment on the media reports during a news conference in Melbourne today.

"I'm not going to comment on a conversation between myself and the President of the United States, other than what we have said publicly," Turnbull said. “I appreciate your interest, but it's better that these things, these conversations are conducted candidly, frankly, privately. If you see reports of them, I'm not going to add to them."

Turnbull reassured reporters that the United States remains a staunch ally.

“I can assure you the relationship is very strong,” he said. “The fact that we received the assurance that we did, the fact that it was confirmed, the very extensive engagement we have with the new administration underlines the closeness of the alliance.”

What’s the Fate of the Deal?

The fate of the deal came into question after Trump signed an executive order last week to suspend travel from seven predominantly Muslim nations -- Iran, Iraq, Libya, Somalia, Sudan, Syria and Yemen -- for 90 days, halt the U.S. refugee program for 120 days and suspend the admission of Syrian refugees indefinitely.

However, Section 5 (e) of the executive order states that the U.S. secretaries of state and homeland security may jointly determine to admit refugees into the country “on a case-by-case basis, in their discretion, but only so long as they determine that the admission of such individuals as refugees is in the national interest ... and it would not pose a risk to the security or welfare of the United States.”

These exceptions include “when admitting the person would enable the United States to conform its conduct to a preexisting international agreement,” the executive order states.

ABC News’ Benjamin Bell, Ely Brown, David Caplan, Devin Dwyer, Jordyn Phelps and Catherine Thorbecke contributed to this report.

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