Australia has reached a resettlement deal with the United States for refugees who are being held in offshore prisons after having tried to reach Australia by boat.
The Obama administration had agreed to resettle refugees among a group of almost 1,300 people held at on the island nations of Nauru and Papua New Guinea. Rights groups have been scathing about conditions at the prison camps.
Another 370 who came to Australia for medical treatment and then refused to return to the islands would also be eligible.
“I can now confirm that the government has reached a further third-country resettlement arrangement for refugees presently in the regional processing centres. The agreement is with the United States,” Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull told a press conference in Canberra on Friday.
Turnbull would not say whether he had discussed the deal with President-elect Donald Trump during their telephone conversation on Thursday.
“We deal with one administration at a time and there is only one president of the United States at a time,” Turnbull told reporters, adding that the deal was reached “some time ago.”
US Secretary of State John Kerry confirmed that the US had “agreed to consider referrals” from the United Nations refugee agency, UNHCR.
“We are going to work to protect vulnerable refugees around the world, and we’ll share that responsibility with our friends in the regions that are most affected by this challenge,” Kerry said.
Australia has refused to resettle any refugee that arrived by boat since the tough policy, widely criticised by rights groups, was announced in July 2013. It instead pays Nauru and Papua New Guinea to keep them in prisons and has been searching for countries that will resettle them.
Few refugees have accepted offers to resettle in Papua New Guinea and Cambodia. Any refugee who refuses to go to the US would be given a 20-year visa to stay on Nauru, a tiny impoverished atoll with a population of 10,000 people, immigration minister Peter Dutton said.
US Department of Homeland Security officials are expected in Australia this week to begin assessing refugees.
Turnbull would not say how many refugees the US might take, but said the most vulnerable would be given priority.
“Our priority is the resettlement of woman, children and families,” Turnbull said. “This will be an orderly process. It will take time. It will not be rushed.”
The agreement, to be administered with UNHCR, is available only to those currently in the processing centres and will not be repeated, according to the government.
Australian Border Force Commissioner Roman Quaedvlieg said ships had been positioned to turn boats back if people attempted to reach Australia in the hope of being sent to the US.
The Human Rights Law Centre said the deal was “full of holes,” lacking both concrete numbers and a timeframe.
David Manne, the executive director of Refugee Legal, said the deal was long overdue and that Australia had failed to live up to its legal obligation to offer asylum to refugees.
“The real question here is that whether these people have had a fair hearing in relation to their cases for refugee protection as there are very serious concerns that they might not have,” he told Al Jazeera.
“It is fundamental that we ensure that any of those people that are not immediately the recipients of the US deal have had their cases fairly and properly reviewed because we know that if we get it wrong on decisions about refugees status, the consequence can be extra ordinarily grave.”
While noting Australia’s detention policy had caused “immense harm to vulnerable people”, UNHCR said it would endorse referrals made from Australia to the US.
Some 675 asylum-seekers on Manus and 941 on Nauru out of more than 2,000 applications have been successful in obtaining initial or final refugee status, the immigration department said earlier this month.
Canberra has long defended its policies, saying they have prevented deaths at sea.