Australia denies reneging on a UNHCR deal to accept refugees

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CANBERRA, Australia (AP) — The Australian foreign minister on Tuesday rejected the United Nations refugee agency's allegation that her government reneged on a deal to resettle some refugees who attempted to reach Australia by boat.

The UNHCR said on Monday it had agreed to facilitate a deal in which the United States would take up to 1,250 refugees among more than 2,000 asylum seekers languishing in immigration camps on the impoverished Pacific island nations of Papua New Guinea and Nauru "on the clear understanding that vulnerable refugees with close family ties in Australia would ultimately be allowed to settle there."

U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees Filippo Grandi's statement is the first indication that Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull's government had ever discussed backing down from its 4-year-old policy that no refugee who attempts to reach Australia by boat will ever be allowed to stay.

But Foreign Minister Julie Bishop said her government had never wavered from its tough policy that stopped asylum seekers from paying people smugglers to bring them from Indonesia aboard overcrowded fishing boats.

"The Turnbull government's position has been clear and consistent throughout, and that is that those who seek to come to Australia illegally — who pay people smugglers that are criminal networks and have then gone to regional processing centers — will not be resettled in Australia," Bishop, who is deputy leader in the ruling center-right Liberal Party, told reporters.

"That's been our clear and consistent position throughout," she added.

Grandi said his agency had only recently been told that the only options for refugees on Nauru and Papua New Guinea were to stay on the islands or relocate to the United States or Cambodia. Australia pays Papua New Guinea and Nauru to look after the asylum seekers who are legally Australia's responsibility. Australia also pays Cambodia to resettle refugees, but few have taken that option.

Vulnerable refugees subjected to four years of "punishing conditions" on the islands should be reunited with their families in Australia, Grandi said.

"The Australian government's decision to deny them this possibility is contrary to the fundamental principles of family unity and refugee protection and to common decency," Grandi said.

President Barack Obama's administration agreed to accept some of Australia's refugees — mostly from Iran, Afghanistan and Sri Lanka — in a deal some saw as repayment for Australia agreeing to accept Honduran and Salvadoran refugees under a U.S.-led resettlement program from a camp in Costa Rica.

President Donald Trump described the deal as "dumb" but has agreed to honor it.

The UNHCR's Assistant High Commissioner for Protection Volker Turk said his agency had identified 36 refugees with close family links to Australia for the government to consider resettling.

Discussions had included senior Australian officials including Immigration and Border Protection Minister Peter Dutton, who had the discretion to accept the refugees, Turk said.

"He didn't give us assurances because we didn't present cases yet, but he did agree that we would be able to present such cases," Turk told Australian Broadcasting Corp. late Monday.

Dutton's office said in a statement his government's position "has been clear and consistent: those transferred to" Papua New Guinea and Nauru "will never settle in Australia."

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