U.S. officials vetting asylum seekers detained in Nauru have departed the barren Pacific island, leaving a controversial refugee resettlement arrangement with Australia under a cloud of uncertainty.
President Donald Trump has harshly criticized the deal, struck by the Obama administration in the days following the November election, whereby the U.S. is due to take 1,250 asylum seekers currently held by Australia in offshore detention centers in the Pacific. It is not clear whether Australia, one of the U.S.’s closest allies, offered anything in return for the deal, which Australian Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull said was a one-off.
The subject was a sore point during a heated recent phone call between Trump and Turnbull, in which the new U.S. president reportedly called it “the worst deal ever.” Accepting hundreds of refugees would conflict with Trump’s executive order halting refugee arrivals and banning immigration from seven Muslim-majority countries.
Trump later fumed about the agreement on Twitter, vowing to “study this dumb deal,” and said the refugees would now be subject to “extreme vetting” in order for the deal to be honored. It is not clear what this will entail for the detained asylum seekers, who are already thoroughly vetted by Australian officials during the detention, with about 80 percent found to be legitimate refugees — that is, people forced to flee their country because of persecution, war, or violence.
Australian Immigration Minister Peter Dutton told reporters Thursday that U.S. Department of Homeland Security officials who arrived in Nauru in January to screen the asylum seekers had left. He said he expected others would take their place but could not say when that would be.
U.S. officials said in November that it could take six months to a year to transfer the refugees, a process that would entail two rounds of screening and be overseen by the U.N.
Under Australia’s draconian refugee policy launched in 2013, asylum seekers – the majority of them brought to Australia by boat from Indonesia through smuggling networks – are held in offshore detention centers in the Pacific nations of Nauru and Papua New Guinea in exchange for payments to those countries. Australia has justified its hard-line stance – which has used the slogan “You will not make Australia home” – as an attempt to stop the flow of people-smuggling boats into its waters, a dangerous practice which it says resulted in at least 1,200 deaths in the six years before the new policy was introduced.
The migrants, the majority of them from Iran and Afghanistan, endure terrible conditions, with the average length of time in detention 469 days and rising. A U.N. report last year detailed numerous cases of “attempted suicide, self-immolation, acts of self-harm, and depression” among children and teenagers in the camps. Amnesty International said Australia had created a “deliberate and systematic regime of neglect and cruelty” that had turned Nauru into an “open-air prison.”
International criticism over the reports of appalling conditions in the camps has put pressure on the Australian government to find homes for the migrants, although the offshore detention program has public support at home.