New Zealand offer to resettle Australia’s offshore refugees still active as US deal nears end

New Zealand’s offer to resettle refugees from Australia’s offshore immigration detention system remains on the table, and the imminent end of Australia’s long-running US refugee swap could bring it under more urgent consideration from Australia.

The office of Jacinda Ardern confirmed to the Guardian that her country’s position had not changed – the longstanding offer to accept 150 refugees from Australia’s offshore islands each year still stood – but declined to confirm whether it was on the agenda for the New Zealand prime minister’s meeting with her Australian counterpart on Sunday. “We don’t discuss the content of bilaterals before they take place.”

Ardern and Scott Morrison will meet on Sunday and Monday in Queenstown.

Nine years after Australia restarted offshore processing, and more than seven years since the last asylum seeker was sent offshore, 239 refugees and asylum seekers remain held within Australia’s offshore islands processing regime: 109 on Nauru and 130 in Papua New Guinea.

According to government figures, 1,223 “transitory persons” are in Australia, brought back from offshore processing islands. This cohort might also be considered – by Australia at least – as candidates for resettlement.

Australia has repeatedly said it would consider resettling refugees in New Zealand only after its 2016 deal with the US was extinguished.

Under the Obama-era deal – condemned as “horrible” and “disgusting” but ultimately honoured by his successor, Donald Trump – the US has agreed to take up to 1,250 refugees from Australia’s offshore system, in exchange for Australia accepting refugees from the “northern triangle” of Central America held in US-run camps.

The US has so far resettled 936 refugees from Australia, en 'n verdere 258 have been provisionally accepted. That would bring the number resettled in America to 1,194, close to the deal’s cap.

US sources with knowledge of the program say that despite the Biden administration increasing the size of its refugee resettlement program for 2021, there will be no additional places for refugees held by Australia.

In Oktober 2020 the secretary of Australia’s home affairs department, Mike Pezzullo, confirmed to a Senate estimates hearing that Australia would consider the New Zealand resettlement offer – to accept 150 refugees from offshore each year – once the US deal was extinguished.

“The Australian government is grateful for that offer from the government of New Zealand … it’s an offer that remains under active consideration.”

The home affairs deputy secretary Marc Ablong told the Senate: “We are getting close to the end of the program. The United States agreed to take a certain number and we’re starting to reach that number.”

Craig Foster and Sonny Bill Williams, working with Amnesty International, said many refugees risked being left behind by the end of the US resettlement deal.

“By accepting this offer, the torment they have endured for almost eight years could finally and mercifully end,’’ Foster, a former Socceroo and spokesman for the Game Over campaign, gesê.

Williams, a former New Zealand All Black, said politics should be put aside in favour of a humanitarian solution.

“New Zealand has a long and proud history of welcoming refugees, and they’ve been offering this solution since 2013. It’s time to accept it and let people rebuild their lives.”

Australia had previously said it was reluctant to allow refugees to resettle in New Zealand because, after five years, they could claim citizenship and would be eligible to travel without restriction to Australia: a position belied by the fact that Australia regularly prevents some New Zealand citizens from entering Australia.

Last time Australia ran an offshore detention program, tussen 2001 en 2007, several hundred refugees were ultimately resettled in New Zealand.

And at least one, high-profile, refugee from Australia’s most recent offshore detention regime has already resettled in New Zealand. The journalist and author Behrouz Boochani flew to New Zealand in 2019 to speak at a literary festival in Christchurch: he was granted asylum.

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