CANBERRA, AUSTRALIA - The United States has agreed to resettle an unspecified number of refugees languishing in Pacific island camps in a deal that is expected to inspire more asylum seekers to attempt to reach Australia by boat, officials said on Sunday.
Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull would not say whether he had discussed the deal with President-elect Donald Trump during their telephone conversation on Thursday.
The Obama administration had agreed to resettle refugees among almost 1,300 asylum seekers held at Australia's expense on the island nations of Nauru and Papua New Guinea.
"We deal with one administration at a time and there is only one president of the United States at a time," Turnbull told reporters, adding that the deal was reached "some time ago."
Trump has called for a moratorium or tight restrictions on Muslim immigration. Most of the asylum seekers are Muslims from the Middle East, Africa and Asia.
Australia refuses to resettle any refugee who has arrived by boat since the date the tough policy was announced on July 19, 2013.
Australia pays Nauru and Papua New Guinea to house boat arrivals and has been searching for countries that will resettle them.
Few refugees have accepted offers to resettle in Papua New Guinea and Cambodia because most hope that Australia will eventually take them in.
Turnbull said the United States had only agreed to resettle refugees already on Nauru and Papua New Guinea. Refugees who arrive in the future would not be sent to the United States.
"We anticipate that people smugglers will seek to use this agreement as a marketing opportunity to tempt vulnerable people onto these perilous sea journeys," Turnbull said.
"We have put in place the largest and most capable maritime surveillance and response fleet Australia has ever deployed," he added.
Australian Border Force Commissioner Roman Quaedvlieg said ships had been positioned to turn boats back to Indonesia if asylum seekers attempt to reach Australia in the hope of being sent to the U.S.
No people smuggling operation has successfully delivered asylum seekers to Australia by boat since July 2014, but 29 boats have been turned back to Indonesia by the Australian navy.
Turnbull announced at Obama's Leaders' Summit on Refugees in September that Australia would participate in the U.S.-led program to resettle Central American refugees from a camp in Costa Rica. Australia would also increase its refugee intake by 5,000 to 18,750 a year.
Turnbull said at the time that the agreement to resettle Hondurans and El Salvadoreans was "not linked to any other resettlement discussions" involving Australia's refugees getting to the U.S.