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Australia poised to sign refugee deal with United States: media

Updated: 2016-11-11 15:33

SYDNEY - Asylum seekers and refugees housed at Australia's offshore immigration detention centers could soon be on their way to the United States, local media reported Friday, though government officials remain tight lipped.

While the number of asylum seekers attempting to reach Australia by boat pales in comparison to those seeking refuge in Europe, the nation's harsh immigration policies adopted in 2013 dictate they will never reach the mainland.

Asylum seekers instead are turned back to their origin at sea, or shipped to one of two offshore processing centers on Papua New Guinea's Manus Island or the Pacific island state of Nauru.

Australia has been in negotiations with third countries to resettle refugees from Nauru and Manus Island, however they remain protracted. Local media has reported New Zealand and Costa Rica are possibilities.

The Australian Newspaper on Friday reported a deal that would see the some 1800 asylum seekers and refugees housed at its controversial processing centers resettled in the United States is poised to be announced.

Asked about the report at an Australian parliamentary committee hearing, Australian Customs and Border Protection Service chief Michael Pezzullo declined to confirm the US was the destination.

"We are working actively on those (third country settlement) arrangements ... today we are closer than what we were yesterday," Pezzullo said, declaring a public interest immunity on providing exact locations.

Third country resettlement has become a controversial topic in local politics after Australia made a 55 million Australian dollar (41.88 million US dollar) deal with Cambodia to resettle refugees from its controversial centers. That deal has all but failed after only six refugees took up the offer, with local media reporting four have decided to return to their home countries.

Australia in September signed an agreement with the United States to resettle a group of Costa Ricans, however officials denied it could amount to a people swap with those housed in Papua New Guinea (PNG) and Nauru.

Australia is also facing a renewed challenge in PNG's supreme court after refugee lawyer Ben Lomai re-filed applications for 302 refugees to be returned to Australia with monetary compensation after it was originally dismissed on technical grounds.

The application is designed to right a wrong after the nation's highest court in April ruled the original Memorandum of Understanding establishing the Manus Island centers as unconstitutional, Lomai said. The court ruled asylum seekers entering PNG were doing so against their will and having their freedom of movement hindered despite not breaking local laws.

PNG has become less enthusiastic to host the controversial Manus Island processing center over the past few years over attacks to its reputation and the fact it can ill-afford the cost of refugee resettlement.

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