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UNHCR: Turnbull Government misled us on US asylum seeker deal -

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LEIGH SALES, PRESENTER: The United Nations Refugee Agency, the UNHCR, is making an extraordinary claim that the Turnbull Government misled it about a refugee deal with the United States Government.

The deal will resettle refugees on Manus and Nauru to the United States.

The UNHCR says it was given a "clear understanding" that vulnerable refugees with close family in Australia would be considered for resettlement here. That's at odds with everything the Turnbull Government has ever said publicly.

In a moment, I'll grill a top UN official on this remarkable accusation.

But first, here's political correspondent Andrew Probyn with a bit of background.

ANDREW PROBYN, REPORTER: It was the deal the Prime Minister struck with a lame-duck president...

MALCOLM TURNBULL, PRIME MINISTER (Nov. 2016): The agreement is with the United States. It is a one-off agreement. It will not be repeated.

ANDREW PROBYN: ...and it got the Australian Government out of a policy pickle.

MALCOLM TURNBULL (Nov. 2016): This will be an orderly process. It will take time. It will not be rushed. It will be administered with the UN High Commission on Refugees.

ANDREW PROBYN: But Barack Obama's promise, made during the dying days of his administration, was under almost immediate question by his successor.

DON LEMON, PRESENTER, CNN (2 Feb.): Very busy night. Now, breaking news: an angry phone call between President Trump and one of our four closest allies, Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull of Australia.

ANDREW PROBYN: That now infamous telephone call threatened to topple President Obama's offer to take 1,250 refugees languishing in Nauru and Manus Island.

Donald Trump reportedly told the Prime Minister it was the worst deal ever, accusing Australia of wanting to export the next Boston bomber.

SEAN SPICER, PRESS SECRETARY JANUARY-JULY 2017, THE WHITE HOUSE (1 Feb.): There will be extreme vetting applied to all of them. That is part and parcel of the deal that was made.

ANDREW PROBYN: Mr Trump reluctantly accepted the deal - even though it's yet to be fulfilled. At the time, the Australian Government said publicly none of the refugees would ever be resettled here.

PETER DUTTON, IMMIGRATION MINISTER (Sky News, 9 Apr.): They are not coming to Australia. And the advocates can bleat all they want. They can protest all they want. We have been very clear: those people are not going to settle in our country, because that would restart the people trade and we are not going to allow women and children to drown at sea again.

ANDREW PROBYN: But late today, a surprising statement by the United Nations, with claims the Australian Government privately agreed to accept some of the refugees. The UN High Commissioner for Refugees said there was:

STATEMENT FROM UNHCR (voiceover): A clear understanding that vulnerable refugees with close family ties in Australia would ultimately be allowed to settle there.

ANDREW PROBYN: The UN agreed to help relocate refugees to the US, based on this understanding. The statement went on to say:

STATEMENT FROM UNHCR (voiceover): UNHCR has recently been informed by Australia that it refuses to accept even these refugees.

DANIEL WEBB, HUMAN RIGHTS LAW CENTRE: It looks like the Government has deliberately misled the United Nations in order to secure support for a deal that, frankly, has always been full of holes.

FRANK BRENNAN, HUMAN RIGHTS EXPERT: If there was such an undertaking, of course it should be honoured. Mind you, for such an undertaking to be revealed at this sensitive stage of negotiations with the United States does make things fairly difficult.

ANDREW PROBYN: Of the 2,000 asylum seekers on Nauru and Manus Island, 1,600 have been found to be refugees. So even if the US fulfilled its promise and took 1,250 of them, there would be 400 would still need resettling.

The last time Australia had so many offshore refugees in detention was in the Howard years - and it took six years to clear. But back then, a quarter went to New Zealand and some went to Sweden, Norway and Canada.

Seven hundred - or more than 40 per cent - had to be settled in Australia. So if the Government now thinks that 400 will voluntarily go to Cambodia, they're dreaming.

JOHN KEY, NEW ZEALAND PRIME MINISTER 2008-2016 (archive): All I can simply say is: that offer remains on the table.

ANDREW PROBYN: Former New Zealand prime minister John Key agreed to take 150 refugees a year from Australia. If activated when struck by Julia Gillard four years ago, 600 would now be living in the Land of the Long White Cloud.

FRANK BRENNAN: The Turnbull Government, like the Howard government, should accept the New Zealand offer. It is simply crass electoral politics to say that we are so deficient in our military and diplomatic arrangements with the Indonesians that we are unable to stop boats, even if we allow 150 proven refugees to resettle in New Zealand each year.

It was preposterous to argue that back in the Howard years, and it's preposterous to argue it now.

DANIEL WEBB: We know that there are a handful of split families: a handful of families separated by the Government's policies, that the Government has known about for four years, that it could reunite with the stroke of a pen tomorrow but is refusing to do so.

ANDREW PROBYN: If Peter Dutton did tell the UN he'd resettle vulnerable refugees in Australia, he's not saying. The soon-to-be home affairs minister is utterly paranoid about saying anything that starts up the boats again.

There are already more than 300 people, many of whom are women and children, who have been transferred to the mainland for medical and compassionate reasons.

And this is the horrid irony of the Government's hard-line border regime: even small mercies are hidden in the deliberate projection of a brutal and uncompromising policy.