American immigration officials who were interviewing refugees on Nauru have left two weeks early, three detainees have told Reuters, just one day after the United States put its refugee intake on hold until October.
The US citizenship and immigration officials vetting refugees on Nauru reportedly halted screening interviews and abruptly left the island on Friday.
Their departure came one day after the US Government announced it has already filled its new, reduced quota of 50,000 refugees for the fiscal year, which means no more refugees will be accepted until October unless they have a bona fide family connection in America.
“US [officials] were scheduled to be on Nauru until July 26 but they left on Friday,” one refugee told Reuters, requesting anonymity as he did not want to jeopardise his application for US resettlement.
A spokesperson for US Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS) said the agency does not discuss the timing of its vetting program, but said the refugee program is continuing and that officials will return to Nauru.
“We do not discuss the exact dates of USCIS’ circuit rides to adjudicate refugees’ applications. However, we are planning return trips,” the agency said in a statement.
“It is not uncommon for the dates of tentatively-planned refugee circuit ride trips worldwide to change due to a wide variety of factors.”
Officials’ departure throws doubt over refugee swap deal
The Immigration Department declined to comment on the whereabouts of the US officials or the future of a refugee swap agreement between Australia and the United States.
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 October 31.
Only 70 refugees, less than 10 per cent 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.”
A resettlement deal with the US was announced by Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull last year, with Australia agreeing to consider resettling Central American refugees from a centre in Costa Rica while the US promised to consider taking refugees from Manus Island and Nauru.
US President Donald Trump described it as a “dumb deal”, and his administration said it would only honour it to maintain a strong relationship with Australia and then only on condition that refugees satisfied strict checks.
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.
The US Government confirmed on Thursday that its refugee intake cap of 50,000 people had been reached with the new intake year not due to begin until October 1.
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 US Supreme Court last month reviving elements of Mr 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 try and reach Australia, it is unlikely many of them have strong family ties to the United States, experts said.
The majority of the detainees interviewed on both Manus and Nauru by US officials in April are from Sudan, Somalia and Afghanistan.