U.S. to apply 'extreme vetting' in refugee swap deal with Australia

SYDNEY (Reuters) - The United States will apply ‘extreme vetting’ to up to 1,250 asylum seekers it has agreed to resettle as part of a deal with Australia, a spokesman for President Trump said in the United States on Tuesday.

Australian Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull reacts as he answers questions during a media conference in Parliament House, Canberra, Australia, November 22, 2016. AAP/Lukas Coch/via REUTERS

Washington agreed on a deal late last year to resettle asylum seekers, mainly from Afghanistan, Iran and Iraq, held in Australia’s processing centers on remote Pacific islands in Papua New Guinea and Nauru.

Under the deal, Australia would in return resettle refugees from El Salvador, Guatemala and Honduras.

Providing details of the plan for the first time, White House Press Secretary Sean Spicer said the deal covered many of the refugees held in the two offshore processing centers, although they must satisfy recently tightened immigration policies.

“The deal specifically deals with 1,250 people that are mostly in Papua New Guinea being held,” Spicer told reporters in Washington.

“Part of the deal is that they have to be vetted in the same manner that we’re doing now. There will be extreme vetting applied to all of them,” he said.

Trump’s executive order last week suspended the U.S. refugee program and restricted entry to the United States from majority-Muslim countries Iran, Iraq, Libya, Somalia, Sudan, Syria and Yemen, casting doubt over the deal with Australia.

Despite the restrictions, Trump assured Australia on Sunday the United States would honor its agreement to resettle the asylum seekers.

Australian Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull dismissed speculation in domestic media that Trump had not yet committed fully to the deal.

“The Trump administration has committed to progress with the arrangements to honor the deal,” Turnbull told reporters in Canberra on Wednesday.

“That was the assurance the president gave me when we spoke on the weekend,” he said.

Australia’s hardline immigration policy is a contentious issue that has drawn international condemnation from the United Nations and other rights groups, but which remains popular at home and has bipartisan political support.

Some 1,161 men, women and children remain in indefinite detention in Manus Island and Nauru as of Nov. 30, the most recent data from Australia’s Department of Immigration shows.

Another 1,000 or so people are in detention in Australia, some of them asylum seekers transported from Manus Island and Nauru for medical treatment.

It was not clear how many of these would be eligible under the deal with the United States.

U.S. Department of Homeland Security officials have begun assessing the asylum seekers, although there is no timeline for resettlement.

Reporting by Colin Packham; Editing by James Dalgleish and Paul Tait