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Volker Turk discusses the Australia-US asylum seeker deal -

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LEIGH SALES, PRESENTER: Volker Turk is the UN Refugee Agency's assistant high commissioner for protection. He joined me from Geneva a short time ago, so I could probe him for evidence of the UN's claim that the Australian Government misled it.

Volker Turk, the UNHCR in its statement today says it agreed to support the refugee resettlement program to the US on the "clear understanding that refugees with close family ties would ultimately be allowed to settle in Australia."

That is contrary to everything the Australian Government has ever said publicly. Can you please elaborate on how and when you were given this "clear understanding"?

VOLKER TURK, ASSISTANT HIGH COMMISSIONER FOR PROTECTION, UNHCR: Well, first of all, I think it is important to mention that there is a bilateral agreement between the United States and Australia on the resettlement of people who are currently in the offshore processing facilities. So UNHCR is not part of this agreement.

But we have had long-standing discussions with the Australian Government on our role of facilitating the implementation of the agreement.

And as a result, we have reached a very clear understanding that we would be able to refer cases - compelling humanitarian cases, especially those with close family links to Australia - to the Australian Government for their consideration.

For us, it was important - right from the start, when we got involved - that Australia would be part of the solution. That's the type of understanding that we have reached with the Australian Government.

LEIGH SALES: But it's important for me to drill down into exactly what you mean by "clear understanding". Did somebody tell you, in a meeting, that the Australian Government would resettle people with close family ties? Were you actually given that explicit undertaking?

VOLKER TURK: Well, obviously when we got involved in facilitating this agreement, we go into this agreement with a clear understanding that compelling family re-unity cases would be considered by Australia.

LEIGH SALES: But how did you have that understanding?

VOLKER TURK: Well, we had a lot of meetings with the Government, including myself with the Minister of Immigration in November. We have had many meetings ever since the start of the implementation.

LEIGH SALES: Mr Turk, you mentioned that meeting with the Immigration Minister. Did Peter Dutton himself give you any specific undertakings that any of these refugees would be allowed to resettle in Australia?

VOLKER TURK: Look, when we had the conversation with Minister Dutton in November last year, we had broad agreements and understandings of how we would - how UNHCR would - actually be part of facilitating the implementation of the agreement between Australia and the United States.

And there was no doubt in our mind - and this is what we put forward to the Minister at the time - that we would present to him cases that are compelling humanitarian with close family links to Australia. We were hoping that, indeed, Australia would consider them favourably, within the discretion that the Minister has at his disposal.

LEIGH SALES: But I'll take it from your answer that he did not give you any assurance that he would actually allow those people to resettle in Australia?

VOLKER TURK: He didn't give us assurances because we didn't present cases yet. But he did agree that we would be able to present such cases.

And in subsequent meetings with the department, it was very important for us to ensure that precisely the verification of close family links was ascertained by our officers, so that we could present such cases.

Of course, we went into this agreement on the understanding that, indeed, Australia would be part of the solution for a handful of compelling humanitarian cases with strong family links in Australia.

LEIGH SALES: You say you want to focus on the bigger issue. But the UNHCR is making a very serious allegation: which is that the Australian Government gave you an assurance in private which was inconsistent with what it was saying publicly.

And so therefore I think the details of what exactly you were told are very important for you to share, if you're going to make that accusation?

VOLKER TURK: Well, first of all, we have not made any accusations. What we have said is that we reached an understanding with the Australian Government about our role in the agreement that Australia reached with the United States of America - and it's about the resettlement of refugees from Manus and from Nauru.

In that understanding, it was clear that we would be able to refer to Australia - and that was always part of our understanding - of those cases, only 36 people so far, with close family links to Australia.

LEIGH SALES: But who told you that?

VOLKER TURK: Well, it was the, ah, Australian senior government officials of the department. It was what we had discussed, in many meetings, with the Australian Department of Immigration and Border Control. And we have even had an involvement in ensuring that we are able to verify family links of those who have those links with Australia.

So it is on the basis of that understanding that we made these cases, we presented these compelling cases to the Australian Government in the hope that, indeed, as is normally the case in such instances, that those with close family links would be able to settle in Australia.

LEIGH SALES: You keep referring to this "understanding" that you had. But if you take, for example, in October last year - and this is just one of many similar comments the Australian Government has made - the Prime Minister said, "Anybody who came to Australia by boat to seek asylum would be banned for life, even if they were a genuine refugee."

There was no mention of an exception for family members. It was a pretty unequivocal statement.

We're now in July. Why, if you thought you had a clear understanding, has it taken the UNHCR so long to come out, when the Government has made these sorts of very clear statements the whole way along?

VOLKER TURK: Well, you see, there is a very heated public debate in Australia about refugees, which is unfortunate because around the world we are facing enormous problems and challenges. And Australia has always contributed to making sure that we actually are able to address them in a way that deals with refugee problems around the world.

But when it comes to the Australian context - and especially to the asylum system within Australia - what we have seen is a deterrence policy. It's a border protection policy with a slippery slope where, indeed, people who are refugees are effectively punished. Part of that punishment is also how they deal with people who have family links in Australia.

When we were part of facilitating the agreement that was reached between Australia and the United States, we went into this agreement, after long discussions with Australian Government officials, that we would be able to present to the Australian Government cases with compelling humanitarian links.

LEIGH SALES: Volker Turk, thank you very much for your time.

VOLKER TURK: Thank you very much.