Nauru President Baron Divavesi Waqa, left, meets with Australian Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull at the Commonwealth Parliamentary Offices in Sydney, Thursday, April 6, 2017. (Mark Metcalf/Pool Photo via AP)

Nauru president: Australia's refugee policy 'working well'

By KRISTEN GELINEAU
Associated Press

SYDNEY (AP) -- Nauru's president said Thursday that Australia's controversial policy of sending asylum seekers to his Pacific island nation was "working well," as he met with the Australian prime minister amid questions over the fate of hundreds of refugees languishing at Nauru's Australian-run detention camp.

The meeting in Sydney between President Baron Waqa and Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull follows fresh scrutiny of Australia's asylum-seeker policy sparked by a resettlement deal between Australia and the U.S.

Australia refuses to settle any asylum seekers who try to arrive by boat, insisting the tough policy is necessary to dissuade migrants from attempting the dangerous ocean crossing from Indonesia. Instead, the government pays Nauru and Papua New Guinea to house them in conditions condemned by human-rights groups.

"We know who our friends are, and we know it is great to work alongside you in our fight against people smuggling," Waqa told Turnbull ahead of their meeting. "I think the program is working well."

But the future of the program remains in doubt, following a spat it prompted between Australia and the U.S.

Last year, Australia said it would take in an unspecified number of Hondurans and Salvadorans from a U.S.-led program to resettle refugees currently in a camp in Costa Rica. Shortly after, the Obama administration said the U.S. would accept up to 1,250 refugees living on Nauru and Papua New Guinea who have been rejected by Australia for attempting to arrive by boat.

President Donald Trump was infuriated by the deal, which led to a tense phone conversation with Turnbull that strained ties between the two countries. Trump later tweeted that the agreement was "dumb." He ultimately, albeit reluctantly, agreed to honor the deal, but has said the refugees will be subjected to "extreme vetting." There are few details on what that means.

Waqa and Turnbull did not take questions from journalists ahead of their meeting, offering only brief comments of praise for each other.

"I want to thank you for the great cooperation that Nauru shows in working together with us to combat this scourge of people smuggling," Turnbull told Waqa. "Your efforts in collaboration are so appreciated."

Waqa will also meet with Foreign Minister Julie Bishop on Thursday, and will meet with officials in Canberra and Brisbane later this week.