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US halts vetting Nauru refugees for now, Australia says

Tent accommodation at Australia's offshore detention centre on NauruImage copyright Chasing Asylum
Image caption Conditions for refugees in Nauru have been criticised by rights groups

US officials have stopped screening refugees on Nauru for potential resettlement, Australia has confirmed.

But Australian Immigration Minister Peter Dutton said he expected the process to resume «in due course».

It follows uncertainly over a deal that would see up to 1,250 refugees currently held in offshore detention by Australia resettled in the US.

The US has said it will apply «extreme vetting» to the refugees amid criticism of the deal by President Donald Trump.

Mr Dutton said US Department of Homeland Security officials who arrived at the Pacific nation in January left this week.

«I don’t have any comment to make in relation to when US officials will be on Nauru next,» Mr Dutton told reporters on Thursday.

«There have been officials there who have left… in the last couple of days and we would expect other officials to be there in due course.»

Australia has controversially refused to accept the refugees — most of whom are men from Iran, Afghanistan and Iraq — and instead holds them in detention centres on Nauru and Manus Island in Papua New Guinea.

The agreement was the subject of a tense phone call between Mr Trump and Australian Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull last week.

«There is a lot of work being done at an officials level with people from my department and the Department of Homeland Security and the Department of State in the US, but it’s not something that I have anything to comment on,» Mr Dutton said.

«Our desire is to get people off Nauru and Manus as quickly as possible.»

A total of 1,254 people were being held in the two camps, 871 on Manus Island and 383 in Nauru, as of 30 November 2016, according to Australian government statistics.

The US deal, struck with the Obama administration in November, involves a one-off resettlement.

In return, Mr Turnbull’s administration agreed to resettle refugees from Guatemala, Honduras and El Salvador.

The UN refugee agency, UNHCR, would oversee the deal and the «most vulnerable» would be prioritised, the Australian prime minister said.

Australia has faced fierce international criticism for its offshore detention policy and wants to close the Manus Island camp. Conditions in the offshore camps have been roundly condemned by rights groups, who say the policy is punitive and inflicts harm on refugees.