The first group of refugees to be resettled in the United States under a controversial deal with the Australian government have left a remote Pacific Island prison camp and are en route to the US, according to officials.
Twenty-four asylum seekers held on Manus Island off mainland Papua New Guinea (PNG) flew to Manila on their way to an undisclosed US location, the US embassy in PNG’s Port Moresby told AFP news agency on Tuesday.
“They’re the first group that have been approved, that have gone through the extreme vetting process and have met all the requirements for resettlement,” Beverly Thacker, the embassy’s public affairs officer, said.
About another 30 refugees held on Nauru in the Pacific will head to the US “in the coming days”, she added.
Under Australia’s strict and controversial refugee policy, anyone intercepted trying to reach the country by boat is sent to prison camps on Manus Island or the Pacific island of Nauru for processing.
The Australian government maintains that the refugees will never be eligible to be resettled in Australia.
The offshore prison camps have attracted widespread criticism from the United Nations and rights groups because of their harsh conditions and allegations of systemic abuse.
There was not, however, any obligation for the US to take a specific number of refugees.
Trump blasted the pact as a “dumb deal” after assuming the presidency, before begrudgingly agreeing to honour it.
Thacker did not provide the nationalities of the those being transferred and it is not clear how many of those still remaining will qualify for US resettlement.
“We expect that other refugees will be resettled in the coming months. They will all proceed with different time frames, depending on how fast they will get through the process,” she said.
‘What happens to those left behind?’
Nearly 800 men are held on Manus, and 371 men, women and children are detained on Nauru, according to Australian immigration data as of July 31.
Behrouz Boochani, a journalist and Iranian refugee who has been held on Manus Island since 2013, told Al Jazeera that while “it’s great to finally see” that some refugees will be resettled, “there are still 800 of us left here in this prison camp”.
He said that those who remain on Manus and Nauru want the Australian government to “answer our simple questions”, which include “How many people will go to America, when will they go and what is your plan for those left behind?”.
“I can’t describe the happiness on the faces of those men who left, but also there was sadness,” he said.
“They know the people who were in this prison with them are still here.”
— OMAR JACK (@Omarmohamedjack) September 20, 2017
Kon Karapanagiotidis, the chief executive of the Melbourne-based Asylum Seeker Resource Centre, said the news of the departures is “so bittersweet”.
“Of course, people are happy for the men who have left,” Karapanagiotidis told Al Jazeera. “But this is not a solution.”
He said that there is still a long way to go for a resolution and that the biggest concerns are: “What the future looks like for the men who remain on Manus” and “what will happen to those who are found to be refugees and those who are not?”
He added: “How can they keep them in a country [PNG] where these men can’t be protected.”
Additional reporting by Laurin-Whitney Gottbrath @elledubg