White House flip-flops on Australia refugee deal

1:07 pm on 1 February 2017

The White House has backtracked on a promise to honour a refugee deal with Australia, saying President Donald Trump is still considering whether it will go ahead.

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Australia has been heavily criticised over both detention camps. Photo: Copyright: andesign101 / 123RF Stock Photo

The clarification came soon after White House press secretary Sean Spicer said the deal was going ahead provided the refugees were subjected to "extreme vetting" procedures.

In a follow-up phone call to the ABC, a White House source said if the President did decide to honour the deal, it would only be because of America's "longstanding relationship with Australia".

Earlier Mr Spicer said the deal, struck between the Obama administration and Turnbull government, would include about 1250 refugees. Many of those were from countries covered by Mr Trump's executive order curtailing immigration to the US from residents of seven majority-Muslim nations.

"There will be extreme vetting applied to all of them," Mr Spicer said.

"That is part and parcel of the deal that was made, and it was made by the Obama administration with the full backing of the United States Government."

According to the latest statistics from the Australian Immigration Department, there are 871 people on Manus Island and 383 people on Nauru, a total of 1254 people.

Another 1000 or so people were in detention in Australia, some of them asylum seekers transported to Australia for medical treatment from Manus Island and Nauru.

It was not clear how many of these would be eligible under the deal with the United States.

US Department of Homeland Security officials had begun assessing the asylum seekers, Reuters reported, although there was no timeline for resettlement.

Australia's hardline immigration policy is a contentious issue that has drawn international condemnation from the United Nations and other rights groups, but which remains popular in Australia and has bipartisan political support.

The ABC understands most of the refugees are from Iran, with some also from Iraq and Somalia, three of the countries on the Trump administration's travel ban list.

At a briefing earlier, US Homeland Security Secretary John Kelly said "we are looking at various options right now" with regard to "extreme vetting".

"There are many countries - seven that we are dealing with right now - that in our view don't have the kind of law enforcement, records keeping that can convince us that one of their citizens is indeed who that citizen says they are and what their background might be," he said.

"So we are developing what additional vetting, extreme vetting might look like, and we will certainly work with countries on this."

The deal was also being considered after Mr Trump had signed an executive order suspending his country's refugee program.

On Saturday, the President put a four-month hold on allowing refugees into the US, plus an indefinite ban on Syrian refugees.

Australian Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull spoke with Mr Trump by phone on Sunday. It is understood the President agreed to honour the deal.

Before the call, Mr Turnbull said there was a section in Mr Trump's executive order which stated officials could still admit refugees under pre-existing international agreements.

The ABC understands that section was included in the final version of the executive order after the Prime Minister's office intervened.

"We are very confident and satisfied that existing arrangements will continue," Mr Turnbull said before the call.

"It's quite clear that the administration has set out in the order the ability to deal with existing arrangements."

Last week, senior Australian Government sources said they were confident the orders would not affect the deal to resettle refugees currently on Manus Island and Nauru, entered into late last year with former president Barack Obama.

Authorities had hoped to begin moving people to the US at the start of this year.

- ABC / Reuters

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