Australia says most of 1,100 refugees have resettled in U.S. under Obama-era deal

Men gather on a rooftop at the Villawood Detention Center in Sydney, Australia, in 2011.
(Rick Rycroft / Associated Press)

The United States is expected to have accepted and settled more than 1,100 refugees by early next year under a deal President Trump reluctantly honored with Australia, an Australian official said Monday.

The Obama administration struck a deal in 2016 to accept up to 1,250 refugees from Iran, Bangladesh, Somalia and Myanmar whom Australia had banished to Pacific island camps.

Trump denounced the deal as “dumb” but agreed to honor the U.S. commitment, subject to “extreme vetting” of the refugees.


The United States has resettled 870 refugees since October 2017, and about 250 more have received provisional approval to make new homes in the U.S., Australian Home Affairs Department deputy secretary Marc Ablong told an Australian Senate committee.

Although resettlement had been disrupted in recent months by the COVID-19 pandemic, Ablong said Australia expected the last of the refugees accepted by the United States to be resettled by March or April.

The resettlement deal “is operating very effectively to date,” Ablong said.

From inside one of Australia’s secretive offshore camps for refugees and asylum seekers, a young Iranian woman told stories of the desperation surrounding her.

The end of the U.S. agreement was expected to leave about 80 asylum-seekers stranded on the poor island nations of Papua New Guinea and Nauru. Australia deterred asylum-seekers from coming by boat in 2013 by banning those who have arrived by sea from ever being allowed to settle on the Australian mainland.

Australia pays Papua New Guinea and Nauru to house such asylum-seekers under deals that have been condemned by human rights groups.

Ian Rintoul, spokesman for the Australian advocacy group Refugee Action Coalition, said the fate of asylum-seekers left on Nauru and in Papua New Guinea’s capital, Port Moresby, was unclear.

“The government’s got no solution for the people that will be left behind,” Rintoul said.

Cate Blanchett talks about “Stateless,” her Netflix drama about Australia’s refugee crisis.

New Zealand’s offer to take 150 refugees a year has been refused while the United States continues to accept them.

The Australian government’s policy of denying resettlement to those who try to arrive by boat includes those who received medical treatment in Australia and then got court injunctions preventing their return to Nauru and Papua New Guinea. There were currently 1,226 such asylum-seekers in Australia, Ablong said.

Some see the U.S. resettlement deal as repayment for Australia agreeing to accept Honduran and Salvadoran refugees under a U.S.-led resettlement program from a camp in Costa Rica.