The United States has agreed to consider taking refugees from Australian detention centres, US Secretary of State John Kerry revealed in New Zealand today.

Kerry confirmed the possible deal with the Australian Government following bilateral talks in Wellington with New Zealand Prime Minister John Key.

"We in the United States have agreed to consider referrals from UNHCR [United Nations Human Rights Council] on refugees now residing in Nauru and in Papua New Guinea," he said at Key's official residence, Premier House.

Kerry said that he knew these refugees were of special interest to the United Nations Refugee Agency, and that the United States were "very engaged with them on a humanitarian basis there and in other parts of the world".


"Now, we are encouraging all countries to work with UNCHR, as we are going to, on this subject that you have just asked about to find a durable solution for these refugees."

The issue was a key focus of a Leader's Summit on Refugees in New York in September.

"My sense is that we're reaching an understanding of how we may be able to deal with it."

It was not known how many refugees could be taken from the Australian sites under any US-Australia deal.

Kerry said he also could not answer questions on whether president-elect Donald Trump would be able to overturn any agreement made between the two countries.

The Secretary of State would not be drawn on whether any arrangement to take refugees would be affected by the Australian Government's proposed lifetime ban on boat people entering Australia.

"I know the Government of Australia has proposed some changes to its laws regarding this," he said.

"I don't want to comment on the specifics of the legislation at this point, it's for the Government to figure out exactly what they intend to do.

"But we will remain focused on trying to save lives and on providing timely humanitarian assistance in ensuring that the human rights of migrants are respected one way or the other."

New Zealand has a standing offer to take 150 refugees a year from Australia's offshore processing centres.

Although the offer has been in place since 2013, the Australian Government has never taken it up, saying that it did not want to encourage boat people.

There are also concerns that it could create a "back-door" to resettlement into Australia.

Kerry also discussed the Iraq-Syria conflict, climate change, and the Trans-Pacific Partnership during talks with Key this morning.