FILE PHOTO – A sign adorns the security fence near shelters inside the Manus Island detention centre in Papua New Guinea, February 11, 2017. Behrouz Boochani/Handout via REUTERS/File photo
By Colin Packham
SYDNEY (Reuters) – The United States will tell dozens of refugees held in an Australian-run offshore detention centre whether they will be offered resettlement in America within six weeks, two detainees told Reuters on Friday.
The deadline marks the first concrete timetable for a U.S.-Australia refugee swap arrangement that sparked tensions between the strong allies after President Donald Trump described it as “a dumb deal” for America.
U.S. officials representing Homeland Security this week returned to Papua New Guinea’s Manus Island, home to one of two Australian-administered detention centres in the Pacific, to conduct medical examinations on 70 men.
The men last month completed “extreme vetting” interviews that lasted up to six hours, with in-depth questions on associates, family, friends and any interactions with the Islamic State militant group.
After completing the medical tests, refugees were told to expect a decision on their resettlement applications within six weeks, two of the Manus Island detainees told Reuters.
“They took some blood and did a chest X-ray. Afterwards they told me I would get a decision within 45 days,” said one refugee who declined to be named for fear for jeopardising his application.
It is not clear how many of the 70 men vetted will be accepted for resettlement in the United States. The refugees include men from Pakistan, Afghanistan and Myanmar.
A spokeswoman for Australia’s Minister for Immigration Peter Dutton declined to comment.
Former U.S. President Obama agreed a deal with Australia late last year to offer refuge to up to 1,250 asylum seekers, a deal the Trump administration said it would only honour 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 United States has taken in a larger number of people in recent years.
The swap is designed, in part, to help Australia close one of its offshore centres that is expensive to run and has been widely criticised by the United Nations and others over treatment of detainees.