Refugees to learn fate under US resettlement deal

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The Offshore Processing Centre on Manus Island in Papua New Guinea, on Wednesday 12 April 2017. fedpol Photo: Alex Ellinghausen (Photo embargoed for feature by Michael Gordon)

The Offshore Processing Centre on Manus Island in Papua New Guinea, on Wednesday 12 April 2017. fedpol Photo: Alex Ellinghausen (Photo embargoed for feature by Michael Gordon)

Refugees on Manus Island and Nauru will on Wednesday begin to learn if they have been accepted for resettlement in the United States under the agreement struck between Malcolm Turnbull and Barack Obama.

Some refugees were informed on Tuesday afternoon they would learn of their fate at appointments with US authorities on Wednesday.

"The US Resettlement Support Centre will provide you with the DHS [Department of Homeland Security] decision letter for your case. Please attend this appointment," they were told by written notice.

Fairfax Media understands about 20 to 30 refugees on both Manus Island and Nauru received notifications on Tuesday, which marked six weeks until the final closure of the Manus Island regional processing centre.

Although their fates were still unknown, the development gave refugees a ray of hope after more than four years languishing on the islands and much cynicism about whether the resettlement deal would be honoured by Donald Trump.

The resettlement deal was the subject of a fiery phone call between Mr Trump and Mr Turnbull, in which the US President called the arrangement "the worst deal ever", but agreed to honour it.

Akash, a 28-year-old Bangladeshi man on Manus Island who received an appointment slip, told Fairfax Media: "I am excited and I'm so happy. I love America. I [do] not dream of Australia, I dream of America."

A notice posted by the Resettlement Support Centre on Manus Island confirmed the decisions were now being handed down for some refugees.

"Every case is different and moves through the required steps of the process at different speeds," it said.

"This is only the first group of decisions and only some who have expressed an interest in US resettlement will receive a decision at this time."

"The issuance of further decisions as well as continued resettlement processing is anticipated in the coming months. Please be patient."

Ian Rintoul, spokesman for the Refugee Action Coalition, said about 20 to 25 refugees on Nauru had received slips on Tuesday, some of which arranged appointments for Thursday.

On Tuesday, which marked six weeks until the Manus Island detention facility is due to close, the UN High Commissioner for Refugees told Fairfax Media action on the US deal was imminent.

"I'm very confident that the US will take very significant numbers of refugees from both locations, which we very sincerely appreciate," said Thomas Albrecht, the Canberra-based regional representative of the UNHCR, which has assisted in the process.

"I'm very confident that the first departures will occur in the near future."

Transfers were originally expected to begin in July, but the US reached its refugee quota for the year. The quota resets on October 1.

Senior sources said the US could take more than the 1250 refugees it originally flagged, but public speculation about numbers and dates was unhelpful. Labor MPs indicated they had been briefed to a similar effect.

Mr Albrecht said refugees were at "various stages" of the approval process and movement to the US would be staggered. "It's not going to be one big departure arrangement," he said.

But Mr Albrecht was critical of the coerced removal of refugees from the regional processing centre on the Lombrum naval base to a "transit centre" near Lorengau, further west on the island.

On Monday night, another 15 refugees were handed notices giving them hours to collect their belongings and assemble with administrators by 9am on Tuesday for transfer to Lorengau.

The paperwork, written in Arabic and translated by Fairfax Media, matched a notice given to other refugees last week in English informing them they "must" move at the stated time.

However, Iranian refugee and journalist Behrouz Boochani said most of the men refused to go. "We're used to this kind of letter and this kind of pressure," he told Fairfax Media.

Refugees have been unwilling to leave the regional processing centre voluntarily, largely because of fears for their safety in Lorengau.

Mr Albrecht said the October 31 deadline was "very unhelpful" and the medical and mental health services available in Lorengau were inadequate, especially for a sustained period of time.

"It would be in many ways very worrisome that Australia would consider abandoning people there," he said.

Immigration Minister Peter Dutton declined an interview, but last week in Parliament reiterated the Turnbull government's intention to adhere to the October 31 closure date.

He confirmed a meeting with PNG Prime Minister Peter O'Neill on September 1, and said they had discussed sending 200 asylum seekers without refugee status to "an alternative place of detention".

Asked if that meant a PNG domestic jail, a Department of Immigration and Border Protection spokesman said he had nothing to add to the minister's comments and it was a matter for PNG.

Mr Dutton also said the Lorengau centre had capacity for about 400 refugees "and we will work with the PNG government in helping them provide services to those people".

The Guardian reported on Tuesday that among those offered financial assistance to go home were Rohingyan asylum seekers from Myanmar, where the ethnic minority faces persecution.

The story quoted a 32-year-old Rohingya man who intended to return to Myanmar with $25,000 he said he had been promised by Australian officials.

Australian financial incentives to return home ended on August 31, although people who applied by that date are still eligible to receive assistance. Refugees who agree to return voluntarily are not considered to have been refouled.

This story Refugees to learn fate under US resettlement deal first appeared on The Sydney Morning Herald.