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US officials leave Australia asylum seeker registration in Nauru, Manus

An agreement between the US and Australian governments to aid refugees off the coast of Australia has been thrown into doubt. Refugees fear the US will renege on the deal but Australia maintains it is in place.

The sudden departure of American officials from an Australian Pacific island refugee camp has sparked fears among asylum-seekers that their hopes to resettle in the US have been upended.

The Australian government operates a virtual blockade against would-be asylum seekers, intercepting their boats at sea and placing them in camps on the neighboring islands of Nauru and Papua New Guinea's (PNG) Manus. The asylum seekers are denied an opportunity to even set foot in Australia where they could apply for political asylum.

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More than 800 men are being held on Manus and 370 men, women and children are detained on Nauru, according to Australian immigration data ending May 31. Only 70 refugees have completed US processing, according to a report from the Reuters news agency.

Former US President Barack Obama agreed a deal with Australia late last year to offer refuge to up to 1,250 asylum seekers. In exchange, Australia has committed to taking refugees from a center in Costa Rica, where the US has taken in a number of people in recent years.

But the sudden departure of US immigration officials from Nauru has raised fears among the refugees - most of them from Afghanistan, Somalia and Sudan - that the US will renege on its commitment.

US President Donald Trump called the US-Australian agreement "a dumb deal" during a phone conversation with Australian Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull, shortly after taking office in January.

Demonstration in Australia in support of refugees

Australian demonstrators protest their government's nationalist refugee policy in 2016

Annual refugee intake reached

The departure of the officials, from the Department of Homeland Security, came shortly after it was announced that the US had reached its annual refugee intake of 50,000 people.

"They've (the DHS officials) given the people on Nauru no indication that they are coming back," said Ian Rintoul, a spokesman for the Refugee Action Coalition.

"People are becoming increasingly doubtful that there is any deal", he added.

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Australian assurances

Australian Foreign Minister Julie Bishop sought to calm nervous refugees Sunday, saying she remains confident the deal is still in place, adding that the "matter is progressing as we expected."

"We have been given assurances by President Trump and Vice-President Pence and others, that the agreement will be adhered to," Bishop told the Australian Broadcasting Corporation. "And the (refugee cap) quota will roll over again on October 1."

The situation is particularly acute on Manus, with the camp set to close by October after a PNG Supreme Court ruling declared that holding people there was unconstitutional.

No entry to Australia

Australian Immigration Minister Peter Dutton maintains that those on Manus would not be moved to Australia and would instead be relocated to third countries such as the US and Cambodia or resettled in PNG.

Manus refugee detainee Imran Mohammad, from Myanmar, lamented the sudden departure of the US officials. In a statement via Australia's Human Rights Law Centre, Mohammad said, "News like this makes us feel dead. It defuses the spark of hope that we try to hold on to."

bik/jm (AFP, Reuters)

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