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What is the Australia–United States resettlement arrangement?

The US has agreed to consider resettling 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.

In September 2016, under the Obama administration, the US intended to resettle 110,000 refugees in Fiscal Year 2017, although this figure was significantly reduced under the Trump administration. The refugee intake for Fiscal Year 2018 is set at 45,000.

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.

Reports indicate that the US undertook to consider resettling up to 1200 refugees. Former US Deputy Secretary of State Heather Higginbottom has stated the US agreed to the arrangement in order to ‘relieve the suffering of these refugees’. A leaked transcript of a telephone call between Australian Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull and US President Donald Trump in late January 2017 indicates that the US is ultimately not obliged to resettle ‘any’ of the refugees.

The US will determine the total number of refugees it is willing to resettle. The exact number may depend on eligible applicants clearing US authorities’ ‘extreme vetting’ procedures.

After processing was paused in mid-2017, the first 54 refugees were resettled in the US in September 2017. As at 22 August 2019 a total of 619 refugees have departed for the US.

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?

In 2016 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.

In July 2017 the UN High Commissioner for Refugees Filippo Grandi issued a statement criticising the Australian government’s refusal to honour an understanding that vulnerable refugees with close family ties would be allowed to resettle in Australia in exchange for the UNHCR’s assistance in the relocation of refugees under the US-Australia resettlement deal. The High Commissioner stated that UNHCR ‘has no other choice’ but to endorse the deal in order to avoid prolonging the uncertainty faced by refugees on Manus and Nauru. 

In 2016 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.

In 2016 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.’

In 2016 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, Peter Dutton, has said that the centre on Nauru will continue ‘forever’ in its present form.  The centre on Manus Island was officially closed at the end of October 2017; while more than 600 refugees and asylum seekers sought to remain at the facility, claiming they feared for their safety should they move into the local community, the men were ultimately relocated to alternative accommodation facilities near Lorengau. The Australian government has maintained that genuine refugees will be resettled in the US or Papua New Guinea, but none will come to Australia.

How many refugees are on Manus Island and Nauru?

As of late August 2019, there were around 300 refugees and asylum seekers on Nauru and around 350 refugees and asylum seekers in Papua New Guinea. There were also 1,084 refugees and asylum seekers from Manus and Nauru are currently in Australia to receive medical treatment or to accompany those who are receiving treatment.

When will refugees move to the US?

The first refugees departed Papua New Guinea and Nauru for the US in late September 2017, while a second group departed Papua New Guinea in January 2018. There is currently no definite information about when more refugees will depart for the US.

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

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


See also Kaldor Centre factsheets on Offshore Processing and the Australia-Cambodia agreement for refugees in Nauru

Last updated 12 September 2019

The Kaldor Centre plays a vital role in developing legal, sustainable and humane solutions for displaced people around the world.