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As Trump Nears Office, Australian Deal to Move Refugees to U.S. Is in Doubt
Protesters in Sydney, Australia, this month demanding humane treatment of asylum seekers and refugees. Credit Peter Parks/Agence France-Presse — Getty Images

As Trump Nears Office, Australian Deal to Move Refugees to U.S. Is in Doubt

CANBERRA, Australia — Barring some unexpected development, none of the refugees held in detention camps on the Pacific islands of Nauru and Manus are likely to be resettled in the United States before President-elect Donald J. Trump takes office, Australian and American officials said this week.

The election of Mr. Trump, whose harsh talk about immigration and Muslims was central to his campaign, leaves in doubt the deal the two countries recently struck to move some of the hundreds of people who were banished to the camps by Australia, after being intercepted at sea trying to reach its shores. Many of the detainees are Muslims.

The issue is a contentious and emotional one in Australia, whose government has pledged never to accept a migrant who tries to come to the country by boat. The stated purpose of the so-called Pacific solution, in which such people are housed indefinitely on offshore islands, is to discourage human traffickers, who often pack migrants into rickety boats for the journeys, some of which have ended in mass drownings.

But conditions on those islands are dire. On Friday, a United Nations envoy visiting Australia said that daily life for detainees on Nauru was cruel, inhumane and degrading. Human rights groups have reached similar conclusions about conditions on both islands.

The Australian government said Sunday that it had reached a one-time agreement in which the United States would take in hundreds of the detainees.

But just days after the announcement of the plan, an Australian official, Michael Pezzullo, secretary of the Immigration Department, told an Australian Senate panel that it seemed unlikely that any detainees would be resettled by Jan. 20, Inauguration Day in the United States.

On Wednesday, in a written response to questions, the United States State Department said that the screening process to determine whether refugees were eligible to enter the United States was lengthy, taking as long as 18 to 24 months to complete.

“The safety and security of the American people is our top priority,” the State Department said. It said refugees were subject to the highest level of security checks of any category of traveler to the United States, involving the Department of Homeland Security, the National Counterterrorism Center and the F.B.I.
Mr. Trump has not commented on the deal. As a presidential candidate, he called for a temporary ban on all Muslim immigration, though his campaign later said that the ban would apply only to migrants from “terror-prone regions.” One of his supporters, Mark Krikorian, executive director of the Center for Immigration Studies, which favors more restrictive immigration policies, was quoted in Australian news reports as saying that the deal was likely to be “dead on arrival” once Mr. Trump took office.

The United Nations envoy, François Crépeau, said on Friday that conditions for detainees on Nauru were grim.

“Mental health issues are rife, with post-traumatic stress disorder, anxiety and depression being among the most common ailments,” Mr. Crépeau said at a news conference in Canberra, the Australian capital, describing what he found on a recent visit to Nauru. “Many refugees and asylum seekers are on a constant diet of sleeping tablets and antidepressants.” Children suffered from insomnia, nightmares and bed-wetting, he said.

Mr. Crépeau said Australia’s policy was punitive. “It sends a message to the people smugglers,” he said. “But to me this is not a justification. To me, mandatory detention is a violation of human rights law.”

The United Nations has endorsed the plan to send about 1,600 detainees to the United States. The camps were opened in 2012.

Manus Island is holding 823 men. About 410 men, women and children, mostly in family groups, are held on Nauru and would be given the first option to resettle in the United States under the new agreement. About 400 others in Australia seeking some medical treatment must return to Nauru or Manus Island before applying to go to the United States.

Only those who have been granted refugee status by the United Nations will be eligible to go to the United States, the Australian government has said. Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull of Australia and the State Department have said the deal would not affect the total number of refugees accepted by the United States each year.

Mr. Turnbull said the deal was the result of months of talks, but he offered little reassurance that it would be honored under Mr. Trump. “We deal with one administration at a time,” Mr. Turnbull said Sunday.

Similar concerns were raised during the hearing on Tuesday. One senator, Murray Watt, asked Mr. Pezzullo, the immigration secretary, whether the government was sure that the deal would be honored, given Mr. Trump’s negative statements about refugees and Muslims. About 10 percent of the detainees are from Iran, while others are from Afghanistan, Vietnam, Malaysia and Sri Lanka.

“We have an agreement struck between the two governments and, should other contingencies or other eventualities arise, that is a matter that the Australian government will have to deal with at that time,” Mr. Pezzullo said.

www.nytimes.com/2016/11/18/world/australia

 

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