CANBERRA, Australia — The first 50 refugees to be resettled in the United States under a contentious agreement with Australia will be notified within days that they will be leaving the Pacific island camps where they have languished for years, the Australian prime minister said Wednesday.
Former President Barack Obama’s administration agreed to accept up to 1,250 of Australia’s refugees — mostly from Iran, Afghanistan and Sri Lanka — in a deal some saw as repayment for Australia agreeing to accept Honduran and Salvadoran refugees under a U.S.-led resettlement program from a camp in Costa Rica.
President Donald Trump described the deal as “dumb” but has agreed to honor it subject to “extreme vetting” of refugees.
Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull said the first wave of around 50 refugees kept by Australia on the impoverished nations of Nauru and Papua New Guinea would soon be notified that they had been accepted by the United States.
“President Trump had some reservations about it, but nonetheless, he is honoring the commitment made by his predecessor and I want to thank you for doing so,” Turnbull told the Seven Network.
Turnbull sad he did not know how many more refugees that the United States might take.
“It’s all subject to the United States’ very, very thorough vetting, their extreme vetting,” Turnbull said. “It is entirely up to the United States as to how many are taken.”
Refugee Action Coalition spokesman Ian Rintoul, an Australia-based advocate, said refugees in the camps were experiencing anxiety and anticipation at news that decisions were pending.
“People are a bit surprised,” Rintoul said. “Some people had given up hope that it would happen.”
Australia will not settle any refugees who try to arrive by boat — a policy that the government says dissuades asylum seekers from attempting the dangerous and occasionally deadly ocean crossing from Indonesia.
Australia instead pays Papua New Guinea and Nauru to house asylum seekers in camps that have been plagued by reports of abuse and draconian conditions. Some of more than 2,000 asylum seekers have been in the island camps for more than four years.
The Australian government was disappointed that refugees were prevented from resettling in July because the United States had already filled its 50,000 refugee quota for the current fiscal year. The new year starts in October.