12 Nov 2016

US looks to take Australia's 'boat people'

7:36 am on 12 November 2016

Australia is on the brink of a deal to send hundreds of refugees held on Manus Island and Nauru to the United States.

Protest by refugees and asylum seekers on Manus Island.

Refugees and asylum seekers protest. Photo: Supplied

Government ministers remained tight-lipped yesterday when The Australian newspaper reported the two countries were poised to announce the pact.

But several sources confirmed to the ABC that Australia and the US would sign an agreement which would resolve the fate of almost 1300 asylum seekers on Manus Island and Nauru, some of whom have been facing years of uncertainty.

Under the deal, the US would resettle detainees who have been processed on the two island facilities and have been deemed refugees.

An announcement was expected on Sunday.

At this stage it was not clear whether the immigration detention centres on Nauru and Manus Island would be closed after the deal is signed.

It was also unclear what would happen to detainees who were not found to be owed protection.

According to the Department of Immigration, there were 396 people in Nauru and 873 on Manus Island on 30 September.

Australian Immigration Minister Peter Dutton ruled out resettling any refugees in countries other than the US until Parliament passed legislation preventing anyone who tried to reach Australia by boat ever being granted an Australian visa.

That legislation, which would apply to any attempt backdated to 13 July 2013, passed the lower house this week in the face of fierce opposition from the Australian Labor Party, but has not yet gone through the Senate.

The US presidential election has also injected uncertainty into negotiations.

President-elect Donald Trump has taken a hardline stance against illegal immigration, and has previously threatened to stop Muslims from migrating to the US.

Australian Liberal frontbencher Christopher Pyne refused on Friday to say whether a deal was imminent, but said there was "plenty of time" for one to be struck before Mr Trump entered the White House next January.

"Peter Dutton and the Prime Minister will make the necessary announcements about government policy in this area," he said.

"But there's certainly time - two-and-a-half months is plenty of time, and if it's the case it will be another great achievement from the Turnbull Government."

Labor Immigration spokesperson Shayne Neumann welcomed the prospect of a deal with the US but was keen for further detail from the federal government.

"We'd be very happy with a country like the United States being a place where genuinely-assessed refugees find a home for themselves," he said.

"The United States is one of the powerhouses of resettlement arrangements around the world."

Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull has refused to discuss the agreement - and on Friday night his office said it "wouldn't comment on speculation".

The deal follows extensive negotiations over the fate of those processed in the two detention centres, re-opened by the former Gillard government.

The United Nations Human Rights Council (UNHCR), non-government organisations, the federal Opposition and the Greens have all lined up to excoriate conditions on both Manus Island and Nauru.

The UNHCR in September said it stood ready to assist and urged the federal government to speed up the resettlement of refugees, describing it as a "dire humanitarian situation".

While those who have been processed in the facilities are no longer officially detained, their future has been unclear for years.

In September, Mr Turnbull also announced Australia's annual refugee intake would also include people from Central America being held in Costa Rican camps run with American assistance.

He denied at the time it was part of any "people swap" arrangement.

The Coalition has repeatedly argued offshore processing has been an essential part of its border protection policies, arguing it was a powerful disincentive to people who were contemplating a trip to Australia by boat.

It is also dismissed accusations that it had taken a cruel approach to refugees by pointing out that Australia was set to increase its humanitarian intake to 18,750 by 2018/19.


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