Refugees currently in detention on Nauru and Manus Island will have the chance to resettle in the US under a new agreement announced by Australian prime minister Malcolm Turnbull on Sunday.
The number of people the US will take under one-off deal is not yet known, and will only apply to people already at the two centres. There are more than 1,000 people currently at the two facilities.
The priority will be “the most vulnerable”, Turnbull said – women, children and families on Nauru.
“It will not under any circumstance be available to any future illegal maritime arrivals to Australia,” he said.
“It is a one-off agreement. It will not be repeated.”
US Department of Homeland Security officials are heading to Australia and expected to begin vetting applicants this week. Refugees will need to pass US health and security checks.
This deal is backed by the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees and will be administered by them, the PM said. The first refugees are expected to head to the US in early 2017, but Turnbull said the entire process would take some time.
The existing resettlement options in Papua New Guinea, which plans to close down the Manus Island facility, and Cambodia will continue. The US option will not be available to those who’ve already accepted resettlement elsewhere.
The Australian government is currently negotiating with Nauru to give anyone who refuses a resettlement offer in the US a 20-year visa for the Pacific island.
“The 20-year visa arrangement will also apply to new arrivals and let that be a very clear message to all people that you will not step foot on Australian soil,” Turnbull said.
The prime minister restated the government’s commitment to preventing asylum seekers who attempt to come to Australia by boat from being allowed to resettle here.
“We anticipate that people smugglers will seek to use this agreement as a marketing opportunity to tempt vulnerable people on to these perilous sea journeys.
“As a consequence, and in long anticipation and preparation for this, we have put in place the largest and most capable maritime surveillance and response fleet Australia has ever deployed. Any people smuggling boats that attempt to reach Australia will be intercepted and turned back,” he said.
In response to whether the resettlement plan would continue under president-elect Donald Trump, who pledged to ban Muslim immigrants to the United States, Turnbull said: “We deal with one administration at a time”.
“These arrangements have had a long run-up and the agreement was reached some time ago.”
Turnbull later revealed that he began negotiating with US president Barack Obama during a meeting in January to resettle the refugees in the US.
While the government was pushing the Senate last week to back legislation for a lifetime ban on resettled refugees coming to Australia, he told Sky News that the issue was largely “hypothetical”.
“This argument that what happens if somebody becomes an American citizen and then 30 years later they want to come to Australia – well the Minister has a discretion. If there is some hypothetical case, the Minister has the discretion as the Minister has in pretty much every section of the Migration Act. And so that is something that can be dealt with on its merits,” he said.
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