First wave of refugees to US from Pacific camps imminent
A first wave of refugees will leave remote Pacific detention camps and be resettled in the United States in coming weeks, Australian authorities said Wednesday, under a deal that has rankled President Donald Trump.
Canberra sends asylum-seekers who try to enter the country by boat to processing facilities on Nauru and Papua New Guinea's Manus Island, with those found to be refugees barred from resettling in Australia.
They are instead relocated to third countries, or resettled elsewhere in PNG.
The Australian government struck a pact with Washington under former president Barack Obama to resettle some of them in the United States in return for taking an unspecified number of asylum-seekers from Central America.
Doubts over the arrangement surfaced after Trump took office and attacked it as a "dumb deal" in a heated phone call with Australian Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull, before begrudgingly agreeing to honour it.
New concerns were raised in July by the sudden withdrawal from PNG of American officials assessing the refugees, days after the US passed its annual 50,000-refugee intake cap.
But Immigration Minister Peter Dutton said the first group were expected to depart PNG and Nauru "in coming weeks".
"The refugees will receive notification of the outcome of their application to resettle under the US Refugee Admissions Programme in coming days," he said.
"Processing of other individuals continues and further decisions by US authorities are expected in due course. As we have made clear from the outset the resettlement arrangements will take time and will not be rushed."
Turnbull added that this was the "first stage".
"About 25 from both Manus and Nauru will be going to the United States. I just want to thank again President Trump for continuing with that arrangement," he said.
Their move was subject to Washington's "very, very thorough vetting, their extreme vetting," he added.
"But we look forward to more refugees, people who have been judged to be refugees on Nauru and Manus, to be taken to the United States."
- 'Don't leave them in limbo' -
Nearly 800 men are being held on Manus, and 371 men, women and children are detained on Nauru, according to Australian immigration data as of July 31.
The camps' conditions have been widely criticised by refugee advocates and medical professionals, who say some asylum-seekers suffer from mental health problems due to their prolonged detention.
A PNG court ruled last year that holding people on Manus was unconstitutional, and Canberra is set to shut the camp in October, but it remains unclear what will happen to those not taken by the United States.
Amnesty International urged Washington to take as many refugees as possible to ensure "not a single person is left behind".
"Amnesty International acknowledges the US for giving people a genuine chance at settling and restarting their lives in a safe place," said the group's refugee coordinator Graham Thom.
"But for the sake of those still living in the harmful conditions on Nauru and Manus we are urging the US to take as many people off these islands as possible."
The Human Rights Law Centre echoed these sentiments, saying while some now had hope, the majority remained in limbo.
"In signing the US deal our government was rightly conceding that it couldn't just abandon people on Nauru and Manus forever," said the centre's director of legal advocacy Daniel Webb.
"That was an important and long overdue concession. Now, it is our government's responsibility to make sure not a single person is left behind. Not one life can be abandoned in limbo."