CANBERRA, Australia – The United States and Australia are close to announcing a deal in which the U.S. would resettle hundreds of asylum seekers banished by Australia to Pacific island camps, a newspaper reported on Friday.
The U.S. had agreed to accept up to 1,800 refugees held for up to three years at Australia's expense in camps on the impoverished island nations of Nauru and Papua New Guinea, The Australian newspaper reported.
Such an agreement struck with the Obama administration could be opposed by President-elect Donald Trump, who has called for a moratorium or tight restrictions on Muslim immigration. Most of the asylum seekers are Muslims from the Middle East, Africa and Asia.
The agreement could empty the camps that have been condemned by human rights groups as a cruel abrogation of Australia's responsibilities as a signatory to the United Nations Refugee Convention.
Prime Minster Malcolm Turnbull declined to comment on negotiations with the United States.
Rebecca Gardner, spokeswoman for the U.S. Embassy in Australia, would not comment on the newspaper report, saying the State Department did not "comment on or discuss diplomatic negotiations."
Senior government minister Christopher Pyne praised the prospect of such an agreement being finalized before the Obama administration ends.
"There certainly is time — two and a half months is plenty of time — and if that's the case, it will be a great achievement for the Turnbull government," Pyne told Nine Network television.
Senior opposition lawmaker Anthony Albanese said "if this occurs, that will be a good thing."
The opposition center-left Labor Party criticized a previous deal struck between Australia and the United States in 2007 to swap refugees, arguing that the prospect of U.S. resettlement would attract more asylum seekers to Australian shores.
Under that deal, up to 200 refugees a year held on Nauru could have been swapped for Cubans and Haitians intercepted at sea while trying to get to the U.S. and held at the U.S. Navy base at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba. But no refugee was ever traded under that deal.
Turnbull announced at Obama's Leaders' Summit on Refugees in September that Australia would participate in the U.S.-led program to resettle Central American refugees from a camp in Costa Rica. Australia would also increase its refugee intake by 5,000 to 18,750 a year.
Turnbull said at the time that the agreement to resettle Central Americans was "not linked to any other resettlement discussions" involving Australia's refugees.
Immigration Department Secretary Chief Michael Pezzullo told a parliamentary committee on Friday that "today we are closer than we were yesterday" to resettling asylum seekers from Nauru and Papua New Guinea.
Immigration Minister Peter Dutton said this week he was looking for countries that will accept all asylum seekers bound for Australia, including those who have had their refugee claims rejected but refuse to go home. Iran won't take back Iranians who won't to go home voluntarily.
Almost 1,300 asylum seekers are on Nauru and Papua New Guinea. Hundreds more have come to the Australia for medical treatment and have taken court action to prevent them being send back to the islands.
Few refugees have accepted offers to resettle in Papua New Guinea and Cambodia because most hope that Australia will eventually take them in.
Australia refuses to resettle any refugee who has arrived by boat since the date the tough policy was announced, July 19, 2013.