The first group of refugees to be resettled in the United States under a controversial deal with the Australian government have left a remote Pacific Island prison camp and are en route to the US, according to officials.
Twenty-four asylum-seekers held on Manus Island off mainland Papua New Guinea (PNG) flew to Manila on their way to an undisclosed US location, the US embassy in PNG’s Port Moresby told AFP news agency on Tuesday.
“They’re the first group that have been approved, that have gone through the extreme vetting process and have met all the requirements for resettlement,” Beverly Thacker, the embassy’s public affairs officer, said.
About another 30 refugees held on Nauru in the Pacific will head to the US “in the coming days”, she added.
Under Australia’s strict and controversial refugee policy, anyone intercepted trying to reach the country by boat is sent to prison camps on Manus Island or the Pacific island of Nauru for processing.
The Australian government maintains that the refugees will never be eligible to be resettled in Australia.
The offshore prison camps have attracted widespread criticism from the United Nations and rights groups because their harsh conditions and allegations of systemic abuse.
Last year, Australian Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull agreed to a deal with then-US President Barack Obama to resettled up to 1,250 refugees from Nauru and Manus Island.
There was not, however, any obligation for the US to take a specific number of refugees.
Trump blasted the pact as a “dumb deal” after assuming the presidency, before begrudgingly agreeing to honour it.
Thacker did not provide the nationalities of the those being transferred and it is not clear how many of those still remaining will qualify for US resettlement.
“We expect that other refugees will be resettled in the coming months. They will all proceed with different time frames, depending on how fast they will get through the process,” she said.
‘What happens to those left behind?’
Nearly 800 men are held on Manus, and 371 men, women and children are detained on Nauru, according to Australian immigration data as of July 31.
Behrouz Boochani, a journalist and Iranian refugee who has been held on Manus Island since 2013, told Al Jazeera that while “it’s great to finally see” that some refugees will be resettled, “there are still 800 of us left here in this prison camp”.
He said that those who remain on Manus and Nauru want the Australian government to “answer our simple questions”, which include “how many people will go to America, when will they go and what is your plan for those left behind?”.
Refugee Action Coalition spokesman Ian Rintoul said the refugees were departing with mixed emotions.
“It is with some optimism that they are leaving, but they are very concerned that they could get no answers from the US officials when other people – their friends – would be able to leave Nauru or Manus island,” he told AFP news agency.
“There are indications that there will be further uplifts of people to the US but it is very unclear when that will be.”