Australia–United States Resettlement Arrangement

Save this webpage as PDF

What is the Australia–United States resettlement arrangement?

The US has agreed to resettle refugees held in Australia’s offshore processing centres on Nauru and Manus Island, as well as those who have been transferred back to Australia for medical reasons.

Is the US a signatory to the Refugee Convention?

The US has not ratified the Refugee Convention, but it has ratified the 1967 Protocol to the Convention, which requires it to apply the provisions of the Refugee Convention.

The US intends to resettle 110,000 refugees in Fiscal Year 2017. Almost 85,000 refugees were resettled in Fiscal Year 2016, and in previous years the intake has been similarly high, at around 70,000 refugees per year. Among countries operating a formal resettlement program (such as Australia) the US accepts the largest number of refugees each year. 

What is the nature of the arrangement between Australia and the US?

While no formal details are yet available, it is a bilateral arrangement between Australia and the US, agreed at the executive level.  It does not require parliamentary approval.  UNHCR is not a party to the arrangement.

How will refugees be processed?

UNHCR will ‘endorse referrals made from Australia to the United States, on a one-off, good offices, humanitarian basis, in light of the acute humanitarian situation.’  UNHCR notes that such endorsement ‘does not alter Australia’s obligations under international law, including the right to seek asylum irrespective of the mode of arrival.’

The US will pay for the costs of resettlement, including flights and accommodation.

How has the refugee sector responded to this announcement?

UNHCR welcomed the announcement as a ‘much-needed, long-term solution for some refugees who have been held in Nauru and Papua New Guinea for over three years and who remain in a precarious situation.’  However, it expressed grave concern for people on Nauru and Manus Island who have not been found to be refugees, but who nevertheless remain vulnerable.  

Amnesty International described the announcement as ‘an extreme step in shirking responsibility by the Australian Government.’  While noting that the US will give resettled refugees a genuine chance at restarting their lives in a safe place, Amnesty argued that as one of the richest countries in the world, Australia should be ‘leading by example’ – especially given record levels of global displacement.

The Human Rights Law Centre said that the arrangement showed that the Australian government had ‘finally conceded that the Manus and Nauru detention arrangements are unsustainable.’

Save the Children welcomed the plan as ‘an opportunity to restore hope and provide a pathway towards a safe and prosperous future for refugees who have spent years languishing on Nauru and Manus Island.’  However, it noted that Australia should work towards ‘a more humane and effective immigration system’ and engage ‘as closely as possible with other countries in the Asia Pacific region to establish a functioning regional protection framework.’

A number of overseas commentators expressed bewilderment and concern that US resettlement places were being taken up by refugees who were Australia’s responsibility as a matter of international law.

Will the offshore processing centres close?

The Australian Immigration Minister has said that the centre on Nauru will continue ‘forever’ in its present form.  This suggests that the centre on Manus Island will be closed in due course.

How many refugees will be affected?

Around 2,500 people – including about 240 children – may be affected by the resettlement plan.  

As at the end of October 2016, there were 941 recognised refugees on Nauru and 675 on Manus Island.  Around 500 people’s status had not yet been confirmed, and around 320 people were in Australia having been brought back for medical treatment.

How many refugees will go to the US?

There is currently no information about how many of these refugees will be resettled by the US.  The Australian Prime Minister has indicated that the priority is ‘very much on the most vulnerable’, particularly families on Nauru.  The US will determine the total number of refugees it is willing to resettle.

When will refugees move to the US?

There is currently no information about when the first refugees will depart for the US.  However, officials from US Homeland Security are reportedly coming to Australia this week to commence the process, and hope to move people early in 2017.

What will happen to refugees who refuse the offer of resettlement in the US?

Nauru and Australia are reportedly in negotiations to create a 20-year visa in Nauru for such people.

What will happen to people who are found not to be refugees?

This remains unclear.  UNHCR has expressed grave concern for these people.

Is this a refugee swap?

At the US Leaders’ Summit on 20 September 2016, the Australian government committed to assist with the resettlement of Central American refugees currently in Costa Rica.  At the time, it was speculated that this was an impending refugee swap with Australia, but this was strongly denied by the Australian government.

Lifetime Australian visa ban for refugees

As explained here, the proposed lifetime visa ban on refugees who arrived by boat since mid-2013 and were sent to Nauru or Manus Island is contrary to Australia’s obligations under international refugee law and international human rights law.

Further, if people have been granted permanent protection elsewhere – such as through resettlement in the US – and subsequently seek to travel to Australia, they would have no basis on which to remain in Australia beyond the term of their visitor (or other) visa.  The proposed ban is excessive and unnecessary.

What next?

The present resettlement arrangement has been described by the Prime Minister as a one-off arrangement.  If more boats arrive, people will continue to be sent to Nauru for processing.  

Offshore processing is not a sustainable long-term solution.  Australia needs to accept responsibility for refugees seeking its protection, especially those with family connections in Australia.  It needs to create alternative pathways to safety so that refugees can avoid making risky journeys, and help to build greater capacity for protection within the Asia-Pacific region.

How does the US resettlement process work?

The US President is authorised under the Immigration and Nationality Act to specify the number of refugees to be resettled in the US each fiscal year. Under sections 207(d)(1) and (e) of the Act, the President is required to provide Congress with details of the coming year’s program, including the allocation of places by region (total 96,000 in FY2017) and an ‘unallocated reserve’ of places available ‘to be used for refugee admissions from any country’ (14,000 in FY2017). In September 2016, Congress was informed that in addition to the unallocated reserve, resettlement places would be distributed as follows:

  • Africa: 35,000
  • East Asia: 12,000
  • Europe and Central Asia: 4,000
  • Latin America/Caribbean: 5,000
  • Near East/South Asia: 40,000

The Bureau of Population, Refugees and Migration within the Department of State administers ‘Resettlement Support Centres’ in nine locations around the world. When a person is referred by UNHCR for resettlement in the US, their application is first assessed by one of these centres, which then arranges for eligible applicants to be subject to security screening by the Department of State and the Department of Homeland Security, and interviewed in person by the Department of Homeland Security’s US Citizenship and Immigration Services. The centres subsequently arrange for refugee resettlement agencies in the US to provide a ‘sponsorship assurance’ guaranteeing post-arrival assistance for individual refugees. The Department of State advises that the average time between referral and resettlement, ‘depending on an applicant’s location and other circumstances’, is 18 to 24 months. 


Last updated 15 November 2016