In November 2016, then President Obama agreed to resettle up to 1250 refugees from the Australian-led regional processing centres in Nauru and Papua New Guinea (PNG). The agreement, a one-off deal for the permanent resettlement in the United States of people found to be refugees under the 1951 Convention, includes those temporarily transferred to Australia for medical treatment.

The refugees previously sought to reach Australia by boat, but were intercepted and transferred to Nauru and PNG under bilateral agreements with Australia signed in 2012. Many of the refugees have been detained in the two regional processing centres for several years.

In light of the Australian Government’s position that no one who arrives by boat will settle in Australia, the deal provides an alternative durable solution for refugees who need international protection. Under the Australian Government’s current policy, asylum seekers and refugees not accepted by the United States will remain in Nauru or PNG, be returned to their home country or be resettled in Cambodia.

Closing the PNG centre

The United States offer to resettle refugees came soon after the PNG Supreme Court determined the detention of asylum seekers at the Manus Island regional processing centre was unconstitutional. In the April 2016 case of Namah v Pato, the court found that detention of asylum seekers at the centre breaches the right to liberty set out in the PNG Constitution.

The court found that both PNG and Australia were responsible for the regional processing centre and ordered that the detention cease. Following the court’s decision, PNG Prime Minister Peter O'Neill said that the regional processing centre would close.

In March 2017 PNG Chief Justice Salamo Injia, in Boochani v Papua New Guineaaccepted that the PNG Government had complied with the order by first allowing free movement in and out of the centre and then by closing the centre. Upon its closure the facilities reverted back to being part of the Lombrum Naval Base, where the 800+ men continue to be accommodated. Despite this finding of the centre's closure, the Australian government continues to refer to the facilities as the Manus Island Regional Processing Centre and both the Australian and PNG Governments have committed to closing the centre by the end of October 2017. 

There are no plans to close the regional processing centre in Nauru, which has operated as an open centre since October 2015.

A refugee swap?

In September 2016, Australia announced it would resettle refugees from camps in Costa Rica, including refugees from El Salvador, Guatemala and Honduras. Immigration Minister Peter Dutton linked this resettlement announcement to the United States offer to resettle refugees from Nauru and PNG, stating, in February 2017, the Australian government ‘wouldn’t take anyone until we had assurances that people are going to go off Nauru and Manus’. The government later clarified that the two resettlement agreements were not linked.

President Trump’s reaction

Following his inauguration in January 2017, President Trump appeared to back away from the promise to resettle the refugees, calling the agreement a ‘dumb deal’. The White House subsequently confirmed the agreement would remain in place but refugees would be subject to ‘extreme vetting’ by United States officials. Processing was temporarily delayed in July 2017 following an announcement that the United States had reached it’s annual quota of 50,ooo refugees, reduced from 85,000 in the previous year. In September 2017, 25 refugees from Manus Island and 27 refugees from Nauru were notified of their acceptance under the deal and were transferred to the United States. Processing is continuing but there is no fixed timetable for completion of the resettlement process.

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Last updated 9 October 2017