SYDNEY (Reuters) - U.S. immigration officials have postponed interviews with asylum seekers in an Australian camp on the Pacific island of Nauru since President Trump’s executive order on immigration, suggesting Washington is already blocking progress on a controversial refugee resettlement deal.
The deal sparked a rare diplomatic spat between the two staunch allies, with Trump berating Australia’s prime minister in an angry phone call that led to quick moves in Washington to reaffirm the strength of the relationship.
Asylum seekers on Nauru who are applying to settle in the United States under the refugee swap deal, agreed in the final months of Barack Obama’s presidency late last year, told Reuters that planned second-round interview dates with visiting U.S. officials had been postponed indefinitely.
Under the deal, the United States would take up to 1,250 asylum seekers. In return, Australia would take refugees from El Salvador, Guatemala and Honduras.
More than a dozen asylum seekers on both Nauru and Manus Island in Papua New Guinea, site of another Australian offshore detention camp, told Reuters they were afraid for their future since Trump said “extreme vetting” would be used and after his testy phone call with Australian Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull.
“We are deeply concerned about the U.S. deal,” Imran Mohammad, 22, a stateless man from the Rohingya ethnic minority in Myanmar, told Reuters by telephone from Manus Island.
“We don’t know what to believe and the uncertainty is getting worse and worse,” he said. “It is killing us inside every day.”
There are around 1,200 refugees, mostly single men, being held at Australian processing camps on Manus Island and Nauru in conditions that have been harshly criticized by the United Nations and human rights agencies.
The Australian government, which maintains a strict policy of not allowing anyone who tries to reach the country by boat to settle here, has never detailed the nationalities of the detainees but refugee advocates say most are from Iran, Iraq, Afghanistan, Pakistan, Somalia and Sudan.
Trump’s executive order last week suspended the U.S. refugee program for 120 days and stopped visits by travelers from seven Muslim-majority countries Iran, Iraq, Libya, Somalia, Sudan, Syria, and Yemen for 90 days.
Trump has begrudgingly said he planned to stand by the deal, but described it on Twitter as “dumb”. Also on Thursday, Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Chuck Grassley called on Trump’s administration to make the details of the deal public, noting it was made without Congressional approval.
An official source with knowledge of the process said confusion around exactly what “extreme vetting” would mean was the reason asylum seeker interviews by officials from U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services (CIS) were postponed.
“The CIS team stage has been postponed as they seek clarification on what information is needed under extreme vetting,” the source, who spoke on condition of anonymity because she was not authorized to speak to the media, told Reuters.
“The feeling is that they didn’t want to conduct the interviews and then find out they needed to do the process again,” she said.
The U.S. State Department did not respond immediately to requests for comment on the postponed interviews, which had been scheduled between Friday and Feb. 21, or whether the U.S. team would travel to Manus island as expected later this month.
The White House is yet to determine and make public what an extreme vetting process would entail, but detainees and their advocates are concerned it would effectively rule out all the eligible detainees.
It has proved almost impossible to determine what Trump means by extreme vetting.
Some refugee advocates fear it will entail medical background checks as well as strict security assessments. They say many of the internees suffer mental illnesses after spending years in the camps. Harsh conditions and reports of systemic child abuse in the camps have drawn wide criticism.
Negar, a 22-year-old from Iran who has been on Nauru for four years, said her first interview for U.S. resettlement on Jan. 24 lasted seven hours.
She was asked about her background, including where her family is now, the reason she fled from Iran, and who financed her trip to Christmas Island, a remote Australian island off the continent’s northwest that is targeted by many asylum seekers who make the perilous sea journey from Indonesia after paying people smugglers there.
She was also asked whether she had links with any political groups in Iran.
Detainees said interview dates on their applications were removed on Saturday, hours after Trump signed his executive order.
They said they were given no formal explanation. Most of those who spoke to Reuters asked for their names to be withheld, fearing they could jeopardize their future by speaking publicly.
“We are back in limbo, and I am afraid if after four months they make up another thing to keep us here longer,” said an Iranian woman with a small child.
“They just play with us, I wish we were dead in the ocean once instead of dying slowly, here in the exile,” she said.
Behrouz Boochani, a Kurdish Iranian man who has been held on Manus Island for nearly four years, said there was some small consolation from Trump’s “dumb deal” tweet.
“Since the day this deal was announced, we have been living with uncertainty over whether it will happen,” he said. “Trump’s twitter helps us in some ways as we know it will not happen.”
Additional reporting by David Brunnstrom in WASHINGTON; Writing by Jane Wardell; Editing by Paul Tait