CANBERRA, Australia (AP) — U.S. officials are "in the final stages" of vetting up to 1,250 refugees rejected by Australia for resettlement in the United States, an Australian offiical said on Wednesday.
The refugees are among hundreds of asylum seekers — mostly from Iran, Afghanistan and Sri Lanka — who have been languishing for up to four years in immigration camps on the impoverished Pacific island nations of Papua New Guinea and Nauru.
Immigration and Border Protection Minister Peter Dutton said U.S. State and Homeland Security Department officials should be commended for their effective work with the Australian, Papua New Guinea and Nauru governments to fulfill a promise by President Barak Obama's administration to take up to 1,250 refugees off Australia's hands.
"There's no delay in the process," Dutton told reporters. "It's in the final stages and I'm very pleased that hopefully as soon as possible we can get people ... off the islands."
Dutton declined to outline any details of that process or say when the first refugees were likely to leave the islands. Homeland Security did not immediately respond to a request for comment on Wednesday.
President Donald Trump berated Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull during their first telephone conversation as national leaders in January over the deal which Trump described in a tweet as "dumb."
Trump said the refugees would be subjected to "extreme vetting" before they were accepted. There are few details on what that would entail.
U.S. Vice President Mike Pence assured Turnbull during a visit to Australia in April that the Trump administration will honor the deal, but "that doesn't mean we admire the agreement."
Refugee Action Coalition spokesman Ian Rintoul, an Australia-based advocate, said he had been told that U.S. officials had interviewed around 600 asylum seekers and conducted more than 200 medical examinations on Nauru. They had interviewed 300 at the men-only facility at Papua New Guinea's Manus Island and completed 70 medical examinations, he said.
"We are getting close to some people being taken from Nauru," Rintoul said.
Australia will not settle any refugees who try to arrive by boat — a policy that the government says dissuades asylum seekers from attempting the dangerous and occasionally deadly ocean crossing from Indonesia. Australia instead pays Papua New Guinea and Nauru to house asylum seekers in camps that have been plagued by reports of abuse and draconian conditions.
Australia last week reached a settlement of 90 million Australian dollars ($68 million) with more than 1,900 asylum seekers who sued over their treatment on Manus Island.