CANBERRA, Australia – An Australian government minister said "economic refugees" fleeing poverty rather than persecution were among the first asylum seekers to be resettled in the United States under a bilateral deal, adding that an Australia-run immigration camp on the Pacific island nation of Nauru had "the world's biggest collection of Armani jeans and handbags."
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A refugee advocate said the accusation by Immigration and Border Protection Minister Peter Dutton was an attempt to justify Australia's refusal to shelter people seeking asylum.
Dutton spoke on Sydney Radio 2GB after Sydney's The Daily Telegraph newspaper published a photograph taken on Tuesday of some of the first 25 refugees from a male-only camp on the Pacific island nation of Papua New Guinea about to board a flight to the United States.
The U.S. State Department said on Wednesday it expected 54 refugees from Nauru and Papua New Guinea to arrive in the United States in the coming days.
Radio broadcaster Ray Hadley said the newspaper photo "looked like a fashion show on a catwalk somewhere in Paris or New York," with some refugees wearing "designer sunglasses."
Dutton told 2GB the photo demonstrated: "There are a lot of people that haven't come out of war-ravaged areas, they're economic refugees, they've got on a boat, paid a people smuggler a lot of money."
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"Somebody once said to me that the world's biggest collection of Armani jeans and handbags was up on Nauru waiting for people to collect it when they depart," Dutton said.
Refugee advocate Ian Rintoul, spokesman for Australia's Refugee Action Coalition, said that by accusing the asylum seekers of achieving a better standard of living by taking the places of genuine refugees who feared for their lives, Dutton was trying to justify Australia's refusal to give them protection.
"They should have been safe in Australia four years ago and for this minister to continue to try to diminish their claims in any way is self-justification for the fact that he's never recognized the rights that they properly have," Rintoul said.
Hadley said the first refugees would be settled in the U.S. states of Georgia, Oregon, Colorado, Texas and Arizona.
Former President Barack Obama's administration agreed to accept up to 1,250 of Australia's refugees kept on Nauru and Papua New Guinea in a deal some saw as repayment for Australia agreeing to accept Honduran and Salvadoran refugees under a U.S.-led resettlement program from a camp in Costa Rica.
President Donald Trump described the deal as "dumb" but has agreed to honor it subject to "extreme vetting" of refugees.
The deal was the subject of Trump's terse first phone call as president with Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull in January.
According to a transcript of that conversation released by The Washington Post in August, Turnbull also said most of the more than 2,000 asylum seekers that Australia keeps on the impoverished Pacific islands were trying to escape poverty rather than persecution.
"None of these people are from the conflict zone. They are basically economic refugees from Iran, Pakistan and Afghanistan. That is the vast bulk of them," the transcript shows Turnbull told Trump.
The State Department says all refugees approved for travel to the United States from Nauru and Papua New Guinea have passed the same stringent vetting processes that apply to all refugees considered for admission to the United States, and any individual not deemed to have met U.S. vetting requirements would not be admitted.
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.