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Refugees From Notorious Australian Detention Centers Begin Arriving in US

Refugees, right, gather on one side of a fence to talk with international journalists about their journey that brought them to the Island of Nauru.
AP Photo/Rick Rycroft, File

In the first installment of a long-awaited agreement, 50 refugees from detention centers overseen by the Australian government will soon arrive in the United States.

The refugees are part of what could ultimately be 1,250 refugees arriving in the US through a deal struck by the Obama administration.

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Earlier in the year, the arrangement came under scrutiny when President Donald Trump berated Australia’s Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull for orchestrating the deal, calling it “rotten” and “ridiculous,” according to the BBC.

Now, according to Australian and US officials, the deal appears to be proceeding according to plan — if slowly.

"President Trump has some reservations about it to say the least, but nonetheless, he is honouring that commitment made by his predecessor and I want to thank (him) for doing so," Turnbull said on Wednesday in response to the announcement.

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The refugees are currently living in the islands of Papua New Guinea, Nauru, and Manus in detention centers that have been criticized for widespread human rights violations. The UN described the facilities as filled with intimidation, sexual assault, violence, and other “inhuman and degrading treatment.” Asylum seekers often stay there for years before being sent back to where they came.

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Because of this documented treatment, the US government had agreed to take up to 1,250 refugees, if Australia agreed to take a similar number of Central American asylum seekers.

The Australian government is willing to take one group of refugees and not another because it wants to have tight control of its borders. The country would rather take refugees from afar that were hand-picked than refugees that travel independently by sea to their shores, because they don’t want to encourage future asylum seekers to do the same.

The refugees that do travel by boat to Australia are captured en route and placed in one of the detention centers off the mainland or they are pushed back into another country’s waters.

Australia has been widely criticized for this approach.

For refugees awaiting a decision on their future, the newly honored agreement by the Trump administration comes as a small measure of relief.

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"The small amount of people who've gotten answers, they're quite happy because they're disgusted with Australia and eager to get to the US and somewhere they think is safe after four years of being illegally held," Ian Rintoul from the Refugee Action Coalition told the BBC. "However, it's bittersweet. The large majority of people at the centres are still waiting to hear and are worried about their futures."

The United Nations refugee agency, UNHCR, is overseeing the transition and is prioritizing women, children and families and refugees who are most distressed.

All applicants, however, will still go through the rigorous, multi-step vetting process that the US follows.

The 50 chosen refugees will be notified in the coming weeks about their status. For the agreement to be fully honored, however, the US will likely have to accelerate the acceptance process.

The detention center on Manus island is scheduled to be closed by the end of October and the refugees who are there will either be deported or relocated to another detention center, according to the BBC.