US officials walk out
18 July, 2017, 12:00 am
YAREN – The resettlement of refugees from an Australia-run detention centre on the Pacific Island of Nauru as part of a deal with the US has been thrown into doubt after American officials interviewing detainees left the facility abruptly.
The officials halted screening interviews and departed the island on Friday, two weeks short of their scheduled timetable and a day after Washington said the US had reached its annual refugee intake cap.
The Australian government was prepared to pay out to stop the shame of Manus Island being aired in court. But the ultimate cost is borne by the refugees and asylum seekers who have had their lives ruined
“US were scheduled to be on Nauru until 26 July but they left on Friday,” one refugee told Reuters, requesting anonymity as he did not want to jeopardise his application for resettlement.
In the US, a senior member of the union that represents refugee officers at the Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS), a Department of Homeland Security agency, told Reuters his own trip to Nauru was cancelled.
Jason Marks, chief steward of the American Federation of Government Employees Local 1924, told Reuters his trip had been pushed back — and it was unclear whether it would even take place. The USCIS did not respond to requests for comment.
On Saturday, the White House did not immediately respond to requests for comment. However, the USCIS said on Saturday that the program would continue but offered no details.
“We do not discuss the exact dates of USCIS’ circuit rides to adjudicate refugees’ applications. However, we are planning return trips,” the agency said in a statement. “It is not uncommon for the dates of tentatively-planned refugee circuit ride trips worldwide to change due to a wide variety of factors.”
The Australian immigration department declined to comment on the whereabouts of the US officials or the future of a refugee-swap agreement between Australia and the US that Donald Trump earlier this year branded a “dumb deal”.
An indefinite postponement of the deal would have significant repercussions for Australia’s pledge to close a second detention centre on Papua New Guinea’s Manus Island on 31 October. Only 70 refugees, less than 10 per cent of the total detainees held in the camp, have completed US processing.
“The US deal looks more and more doubtful,” Ian Rintoul from the Refugee Action Coalition said. “The US deal was never the solution the Australian government pretended it to be.”
The former US president Barack Obama agreed the deal with Australia late last year to offer refuge to up to 1250 asylum seekers. The Trump administration said it would only honour the deal to maintain a strong relationship with Australia — and then only on condition that refugees satisfied strict checks.
In exchange, Australia has pledged to take Central American refugees from a centre in Costa Rica, where the US has taken in a larger number of people in recent years.
The swap is designed, in part, to help Australia close both Manus and Nauru, which are expensive to run and have been widely criticised by the United Nations and others over treatment of detainees.