Vice President Mike Pence said America would honor a controversial refugee deal with Australia, under which the US would resettle up to 1,250 asylum seekers, a deal Donald Trump had described as “dumb.”
Pence told a joint news conference with Australian Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull in Sydney that the deal would be subject to vetting, and that honoring it “doesn’t mean that we admire the agreement.”
“We will honor this agreement out of respect to this enormously important alliance,” Pence said at Turnbull’s harborside official residence in Sydney.
Australia is one of Washington’s staunchest allies and has sent troops to fight in Iraq and Afghanistan.
Under the deal, agreed with former president Barack Obama late last year, the US would resettle up to 1,250 asylum seekers held in offshore processing camps on South Pacific islands in Papua New Guinea and Nauru.
In return, Australia would resettle refugees from El Salvador, Guatemala and Honduras.
The White House has already said it would apply “extreme vetting” to those asylum seekers held in the Australian processing centers seeking resettlement in the US.
The deal has taken on added importance for Australia, which is under political and legal pressure to shut the camps, particularly one on PNG’s Manus Island where violence between residents and inmates has flared recently.
Asylum-seeker advocates welcomed the US commitment, although they remained concerned that “extreme vetting” could see fewer than 1,250 resettled in the US.
‘It speaks volumes for the commitment, the integrity of President Trump’
“What still isn’t clear is how many people will have this opportunity, and that clarity must be provided,” said Graham Thom, refugee coordinator at Amnesty International Australia.
“The violence on Manus Island last weekend only further demonstrates that the Australian government needs to give a clear commitment that no refugee or person seeking asylum will be left behind in Papua New Guinea or Nauru,” he said.
Australia’s relationship with the new administration in Washington got off to a rocky start in January when Trump lambasted Turnbull over the resettlement arrangement, which Trump labelled a “dumb deal” while describing the refugees as illegal immigrants.
Details of an acrimonious phone call between the pair soon after Trump took office made headlines around the world.
Turnbull acknowledged Trump’s reluctance, but said the US commitment was a measure of Trump’s new US administration.
“It speaks volumes for the commitment, the integrity of President Trump,” he said.
Pence was speaking on the final leg of a 10-day tour of the Asia-Pacific region that included meetings with political and business leaders in South Korea, Japan and Indonesia.
His trip to Australia is the first by a senior official in the Trump administration as the US looks to strengthen economic ties and security cooperation amid disputes in the South China Sea and tension on the Korean Peninsula.
“The truth is President Trump’s election has created a need to reassure allies about Mr Trump’s intentions,” Lowy Institute executive director Michael Fullilove said.
“Mr Pence is a traditional conservative Republican who has an alliance-centric view of the world and I think the purpose of his mission is to telegraph continuity to Japan and Korea, Australia and Indonesia.
“The reason to do that is we have a president who for three decades has held to a very different world view, who has basically decried the global liberal order, who’s shown himself to be hostile to free trade, someone who is skeptical of alliances and suspicious of institutions like the United Nations.”
(Reporting by Roberta Rampton and Colin Packham; writing by Paul Tait; editing by Jacqueline Wong)