Uncertainty still surrounds the one-off deal between Australia and Washington for the transfer of potentially 1,600 refugees from Papua New Guinea (PNG) and Nauru to the United States even after U.S. President Donald Trump gave the green light to the controversial agreement.
About 60 asylum seekers on Manus Island in PNG are facing deportation with Port Moresby finalizing their travel documents for repatriation home. Most are from Iran while others are from Iraq, Nepal, Pakistan, Somalia, Sudan, Vietnam, Bangladesh and India.
Meanwhile, U.S. vetting on Nauru has been halted with no reason given, though Australian Immigration Minister Peter Dutton says the process will resume in due course.
“There is a lot of work being done at an official level with people from my department and the Department of Homeland Security and the Department of State in the U.S., but it’s not something that I have anything to comment on,” Dutton said. “Our desire is to get people off Nauru and Manus as quickly as possible.”
About 2,400 people have arrived illegally off of Australia’s coast since mid-2013. Of them, about 1,600 have already been assessed as refugees and were expected to be resettled in the United States.
Trump gave the go-ahead late last month to the deal –struck with the previous Obama administration – in a telephone conversation with Australian Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull, raising hopes of an end to the long running refugee saga.
But the president, who has caused an outcry at home and abroad over his tough stance on immigration, insisted refugees rejected by Australia would only be admitted after being put through an “extreme vetting” process.
His executive order to suspend and limit the refugee program in the United States does allow for pre-existing deals to go ahead. It also allows for case-by-case assessments by the State Department.
Australian authorities have refused access to all asylum seekers arriving on it shores by boat in an effort to shut down what was a rapidly expanding people smuggling industry.
Hundreds have drowned while attempting to reach the Australian coast in rickety, overcrowded boats, but the casualty rates have fallen dramatically in recent years as the government’s offshore detention policies took hold.
Authorities are also wary that people smugglers might try and use the resettlement deal as a marketing strategy to reboot their operations and again encourage asylum seekers back onto boats with false promises of potential settlement in the United States.
For that reason, Australia beefed up its maritime and military presence along its northern coastline before Christmas as part Turnbull’s so called “ring of steel” — designed to intercept and turn back any people smuggling boats attempting to reach Australia.
The six naval Armidale-class ships, already deployed to Australia’s north, have been bolstered by a major fleet support unit while the Australian Border Force was sending up to half a dozen Cape-class patrol boats supported by an offshore patrol vessel.
On Manus, a total of 168 asylum claims have been rejected to date. Once cleared, the Manus Island processing center will close in response to last April’s Supreme Court ruling in PNG that the camp is unconstitutional.
Nauru, however, is expected to remain open and will handle any further arrivals.
Australia is also negotiating 20-year visas with Nauru on behalf of those who have refused resettlement offers and declined to return home after their claims were rejected.
An end to the camps will be welcomed by most Australians, and in particular the Turnbull government which has built its credibility based upon its ‘stop the boats’ policy. However, a final transfer of refugees to the United States and deportation of those whose claims were unsuccessful could still be some time off.
Luke Hunt can be followed on Twitter @lukeanthontyhunt