Obama Administration Agrees to Take Mideast Refugees Refused by Australia

By Patrick Goodenough | November 14, 2016 | 4:23am EST
President Obama talks with Australia's Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull on the sidelines of an APEC summit in Manila, Philippines on Tuesday, Nov. 17, 2015. (AP Photo/Susan Walsh, File)

(CNSNews.com) – A little over two months before President Obama leaves the White House, Australia’s prime minister has disclosed that the U.S. has agreed to resettle an unspecified number of refugees, mostly from the Middle Eastern region, who are currently housed in offshore detention centers after being prevented from reaching Australia by boat.

Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull would not say Monday how many migrants would be taken by the United States or be drawn on what would happen once President-elect Donald Trump is in the Oval Office.

“We deal with one administration at a time,” he told Australia’s Nine Network TV.

“There’s only one president of the United States at any time. Until January 20 when Donald Trump in inaugurated, the president is Barack Obama,” he said. “We deal with one administration at a time.”

Asked why he hadn’t raised the matter during a congratulatory phone call to Trump on Thursday, Turnbull replied, “You don’t discuss confidential matters with one administration with a future administration.”

Some 1,300 asylum-seekers are being accommodated at detention centers in Papua New Guinea and on the small Pacific island nation of Nauru, under a controversial policy announced by Australia’s previous Labor government in July 2013.

Turnbull told a press conference Sunday that a “one-off” agreement had been struck with the Obama administration some months ago, and that the resettled refugees would fit within, and not be in addition to, the existing U.S. refugee quota.

The outgoing administration’s FY 2017 refugee admission target, laid out in a report to Congress last September, is 110,000, an almost 30 percent increase from the FY 2016 target of 85,000.

Turnbull also said the offer of applying for resettlement in the U.S. would only be available to those already housed in the offshore facilities – not to any future asylum-seekers who attempt to reach Australia by boats operated by people-smugglers.

Asked Monday whether he was confident the migrants would not be left stranded by a change of administration in Washington, and whether they would be resettled by the time Trump takes office, Turnbull would only say that “the process will continue for some months.”

He also said the U.S. would not be short-cutting its security and health check policies to process the asylum-seekers.

U.S. officials would arrive in Australia this week, and then visit the detention centers to begin the processing.

Australian governments have grappled for years with how to deal with illegal asylum-seekers, thousands of whom have made perilous journeys to Australia on boats launched from Indonesia. At least 1,200 deaths at sea were reported.

Most originate from the Middle East and West Asia.

In recent years those intercepted have been transferred to offshore detention centers on Australia’s Indian Ocean possession of Christmas Island, and on Nauru and Manus island in Papua New Guinea. The Australian government pays for those governments to host the centers, where conditions at times have drawn sharp criticism from rights advocacy groups.

The Turnbull government recently announced it will seek to pass legislation preventing any asylum-seeker who arrives illegally by boat from ever settling in Australia.

The government has also announced it will set a permanent annual humanitarian refugee intake at almost 19,000 a year, up from less than 14,000. It has agreed additionally to take in 12,000 refugees fleeing the conflict in Syria.

Of the newly-announced agreement with the U.S., Australian officials say asylum-seekers who turn out to be ineligible for refugee status and resettlement in the U.S. can either return to their countries or origin, or remain on Nauru under a deal being negotiated between Australia and Nauru.

Last week Turnbull described his 15-minute phone call with Trump as “a very warm discussion.”

“I suppose as both being businessmen who found our way into politics, somewhat later in life, we come to the problems of our own nations and indeed world problems with a pragmatic approach,” he said.

“Mr. Trump is a deal maker. He is a businessman, a deal maker and he will, I have no doubt, view the world in a very practical and pragmatic way.”

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