Australian foreign minister says U.S. refugee swap proceeding


 Reuters International

Australian Foreign Minister Julie Bishop listens during a news conference with Foreign Secretary Boris Johnson, Defence Secretary Michael Fallon, and Australian Defence Minister Marise Payne, at the Royal Hospital Chelsea in London, Britain September 9, 2016. REUTERS/Nick Ansell/Pool

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SYDNEY (Reuters) - Australian Foreign Minister Julie Bishop said on Saturday that a controversial refugee resettlement deal with the United States would go ahead, despite U.S. immigration officials postponing interviews with asylum seekers.

Reuters reported on Friday that U.S. officials had pulled planned second-round interviews with detainees in an Australian camp on the Pacific island of Nauru, suggesting Washington is already blocking progress on a controversial refugee resettlement deal.

Detainees and an official source said interview dates were pulled on Saturday, hours after U.S. President Donald Trump signed an executive order that suspended the U.S. refugee programme for 120 days and stopped visits by travellers from seven Muslim-majority countries.

Bishop said both countries were still working through the details of the agreement, which sparked a rare diplomatic spat between the two staunch allies, with Trump berating Australia's prime minister in an angry phone call.

"The agreement is to be honoured by the Trump administration (so) I'm pleased this agreement will continue," Bishop told reporters in Western Australia.

"We remain in contact with the Trump administration and our embassy in Washington is also working with U.S. officials and we expect that vetting process would be as tough as Australia's vetting process in terms of health and security checks," she added.

Bishop said "my understanding is that interviewing and vetting is still taking place", without providing any further details.

Several detainees on Nauru showed Reuters the cancelled interview dates in their online applications, while a source said the second-round interviews had been postponed while officials tried to work out what was meant by the "extreme vetting" announced by the White House.

Under the refugee swap deal, agreed in the final months of Barack Obama's presidency late last year, the United States would take up to 1,250 asylum seekers. In return, Australia would take refugees from El Salvador, Guatemala and Honduras.

Trump has begrudgingly said he planned to stand by the deal, but described it on Twitter as "dumb".

The White House has yet to determine and make public what an extreme vetting process would entail, but detainees and their advocates are concerned it would effectively rule out all the eligible detainees.

Thousands of protesters rallied across Australia on Saturday condemning Trump's executive order and demanding an end to Australia's offshore detention of asylum seekers.

A U.S. federal judge on Friday put a nationwide block on Trump's order, although his administration could still have the policy put back into effect on appeal.

(Reporting by Jane Wardell; Editing by Nick Macfie)

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