SYDNEY — Australia has reached a resettlement deal with the United States for refugees being held in Papua New Guinea and Nauru after attempting to reach Australia by boat, Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull said Sunday.
Under Australia’s tough border security laws, asylum seekers intercepted trying to reach the country by boat are sent for processing at detention camps on Papua New Guinea’s Manus island and the tiny South Pacific island nation of Nauru.
Some 1,200 people are currently held in the camps, many of whom have been held for more than three years.
“I can now confirm that the Government has reached a further third country resettlement arrangement for refugees presently in the regional processing centers. The agreement is with the United States,” Turnbull told a press conference in Canberra, the Australian capital.
The agreement, to be administered with the U.N. High Commission on Refugees, is available only to those currently in the processing centers, and it will not be repeated.
Turnbull would not say exactly how many refugees would be resettled in the U.S., but he said women, children and families would be prioritized.
Detainees who have had applications for refugee status rejected should return to their countries, he said.
Australia’s offshore detention policy for “boat people” has drawn widespread condemnation both at home and overseas amid reports of harsh conditions and systemic child abuse.
The deal relieves a major headache for Turnbull, whose poll numbers fell to a 14-month low last week, raising speculation of fresh political turbulence in a country that has had four leaders in six years.
Abdul Aziz, 24, who has spent more than three years on Manus Island after fleeing his home in Sudan in 2013, was very happy.
“All the refugees were smiling and hugging each other. This nightmare is going to end finally, but the main question is when and how and how we get out of here,” he told Reuters.
U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry told reporters while visiting New Zealand on Sunday: “We in the United States have agreed to consider referrals from UNHCR on refugees now residing in Nauru and in Papua New Guinea.”
The election of Donald Trump, who has threatened to ban Muslims from entering the U.S. and championed anti-immigration policies, has injected uncertainty into the deal.
But Turnbull said the “agreement was reached some time ago. There is a great deal of preparation and planning that has gone into it and, indeed, in leading up to this announcement.”
No timeline was given for the process.
Amnesty International last month said as many of 410 men, women and children held on Nauru are being driven to the brink as a result of treatment that amounted to “torture.”
Papua New Guinea has said it will close the Manus Island center, but the Nauru facility will remain open.
Asylum seekers who refuse offers to resettle in a third country or to return home will be offered a 20-year visa to stay on Nauru, but no financial support, Immigration Minister Peter Dutton said.
Once rich in phosphate, Nauru has limited economic resources and the Australian-funded detention center provides the tiny island state’s most significant revenue stream.