The US has agreed to take in some of the asylum-seekers that Australia keeps in off-shore camps in Papua New Guinea and Nauru. Australia will also ramp up its effort to intercept and turn back new refugees trying to reach it by boat.
The deal announced by Australian Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull and Immigration Minister Peter Dutton on Sunday was reached after a year of negotiations. The US Department of Homeland Security will start the vetting process in the next few days, while resettlement is set to begin early next year, ABC News reported.
Turnbull did not specify the number of people the US is to let in, but the news channel said most of the asylum-seekers currently held in island refugee centers would be eligible, as well as some who were brought to mainland Australia for medical treatment. Priority would be given to vulnerable people and families, the report said.
There are around 1,200 people kept in detention centers on Papua New Guinea’s Manus island and the tiny South Pacific island nation of Nauru. Human rights activists have repeatably criticized Australia for the poor conditions and treatment in the refugee camps. The resettlement brings hope, though the absence of details is a point of concern, said Amnesty International.
“Amnesty International has seen first hand the horrific abuse that is being inflicted on people in Nauru and on Manus island, so we are pleased that for those who may be resettled in the US the abuse will come to an end,” Dr Graham Thom, Refugee Coordinator at Amnesty International Australia, told Reuters.
The UN High Commission on Refugees (UNHCR) is to oversee the resettlement process, but is not a party to it. It said it remained “gravely concerned” about the fate of all vulnerable individuals in the refugee centers.
Some activists voiced concern over President-elect Donald Trump’s anti-immigration stance, questioning whether he would honor the resettlement deal. During the campaign, Trump suggested closing the US border to all Muslims. The refugees slated for resettlement are mostly Muslim.
While striking a deal with the US for asylum-seekers in the camps, Australia said it would take stronger measures to prevent further arrivals, an effort described by the government as a “ring of steel.”
“We recognize that people smugglers will seek to exploit this announcement,” PM Turnbull said, reiterating the federal government’s policy of intercepting boats and turning them back to Indonesia or the Indian subcontinent.
Papua New Guinea has said it will close the Manus island center after its Supreme Court ruled that detention of asylum-seekers there was unconstitutional. The Nauru facility will remain open.
“We still rely on regional processing, which is why Nauru will remain in its current status forever,” Minister Dutton said.
Those who refuse offers to resettle or return home will be offered a 20-year visa to stay on Nauru, but no financial support, he added.