Updated Nov. 12, 2016 10:03 p.m. ET
MELBOURNE, Australia—Some of the hundreds of refugees being held in Australia-backed Pacific island camps are to be resettled in the U.S. under a one-time deal between the countries.
The U.S. government has agreed to accept refugees being held in Nauru and Papua New Guinea’s Manus Island, Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull said Sunday. Mr. Turnbull didn’t disclose how many were likely to resettled by the U.S. or on what terms, but he stressed the arrangement wouldn’t be repeated or be extended to asylum seekers not already in the camps.
The conservative government has maintained a tough line on asylum seekers who have sought to cross the dangerous waters between Asia and Australia but has moved to empty the offshore immigration detention centers that critics have called Australia’s “Guantanamo Bay.” Negotiations in recent months with various countries to resettle the refugees became more urgent in April when Papua New Guinea’s highest court ordered the closure of Manus, ruling that hundreds of asylum seekers were being held there illegally on Australia’s behalf.
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Mr. Turnbull said it had fallen to his government to “stop the boats,” close onshore Australian detention centers and remove children from detention. The deal with the U.S. to handle refugees being held offshore adds to earlier arrangements with Papua New Guinea and Cambodia to accept asylum seekers from the camps.
“Our priority is the resettlement of women, children and families. This will be an orderly process [and] it will not be rushed,” Mr. Turnbull said of the U.S. deal.
The process with the U.S. is due to begin in the coming days and will be administered with the United Nations refugee agency UNHCR. U.S. authorities will conduct their own assessment of refugees and decide which people would be resettled in the U.S., and refugees would need to satisfy standards for admissions, including health and security checks, the Australian government said.
Speaking earlier Sunday in New Zealand, Secretary of State John Kerry said the U.S. had agreed to consider referrals from UNHCR on refugees now in Nauru and Papua New Guinea. “We are encouraging all countries to work with UNHCR, as we are going to on this subject…to find a durable solution for these refugees, he said.
According to Australia’s government, there were 466 people in the Nauru camp and 847 on Manus Island as of May. Most refugees come from Afghanistan, Pakistan, Iraq, Iran and Sri Lanka.
Australia has refused to take any of the detainees under a tough border-blockade policy aimed at deterring people smuggling, declaring no asylum seeker arriving outside of official channels would be allowed to settle in the country.
Mr. Turnbull said he expected the agreement with the U.S. would spur people smugglers to try to land people in Australia, but he said the government had in recent months stepped up its offshore enforcement and intelligence efforts to tighten border controls. Any of the people in the Manus Island and Nauru camps who don’t qualify or who don’t accept an offer to be resettled would be returned to their home countries, the prime minister said.
Asked by reporters whether the election of Donald Trump might see the agreement overturned, he said there had been lengthy negotiations to reach the deal. “We deal with one administration at a time. There is only one U.S. president at a time,” he said.
A spokesman for the Australian government declined to comment further on the agreement or whether Australia had offered the U.S. anything in exchange.
Bill Shorten, leader of Australia’s opposition Labor party, said he welcomed the opportunity for refugees to be resettled in the U.S.
Daniel Webb, director of legal advocacy at Australia’s Human Rights Law Centre, said the government’s plan contained no numbers or time frame and foreshadowed the deportation of 370 people already in Australia for medical and other reasons, including about 100 children. “After three years of fear, harm and limbo, the government has finally conceded that Nauru and Manus are dead-ends,” he said.
Amnesty International said in a statement that it is concerned about the lack of information provided by the Australian government around the timeline of this deal taking place and the lack of clarity around the numbers of people who will be given the opportunity to settle in the U.S., with fears that many people will be left behind.
Write to Robb M. Stewart at email@example.com
Tags: Afghanistan!, asylum-seekers, Australia, Iran, Iraq, Malcolm Turnbull, Manus, migrants, Nauru, Obama, Pakistan, refugees, Sri Lanka, standards for admissions, Trump Election Adds Urgency to Australia’s Pursuit of Refugee Accord, Turnbull, U. S., U.S. to vet refugees, UNHCR