Abrupt halt to screening interviews from US officials throws refugee swap programme into doubt

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.
“US [officials] 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.
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 Oct. Only 70 refugees, less than 10% 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 1,250 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.
A State Department spokeswoman said on Friday that USCIS “has not yet concluded adjudications of any refugees being considered for resettlement out of Australian facilities in Nauru and Manus Islands”, and referred questions on timing to USCIS.
The US government confirmed on Thursday that its refugee intake cap of 50,000 people had been reached. The new intake year is not due to begin until 1 October.
Exemptions could be made for those who have a “credible claim to a bona fide relationship with a person or entity in the United States“, following a decision from the Supreme Court last month reviving elements of Trump’s travel ban while it considers the legality of the order.
Given the risky boat journey the refugees in Manus and Nauru undertook to reach Australia, it is unlikely many of them have strong family ties to the US, experts said. The majority of the detainees interviewed on both Manus and Nauru by US officials in April are from Sudan, Somalia and Afghanistan.
Australia’s hardline immigration policy requires asylum seekers intercepted at sea trying to reach Australia to be sent for processing to camps at Manus and Nauru. They are told they will never be settled in Australia.
Trump’s resistance to the refugee deal had strained relations with a key Asia Pacific ally, triggering a fractious phone call with the Australian prime minister, Malcolm Turnbull, earlier this year.
Trump’s concession and a series of high-level visits by US dignities has since helped mend connections between the two countries.
Australia has already offered detainees up to $25,000 (£15,000) to voluntarily return to their home countries, an offer few have taken up.

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