THE Australian government is looking for another country to resettle hundreds of asylum seekers held on poor Pacific islands, a minister said amid its plans to banish for life people who arrived illegally by boat.
Immigration Minister Peter Dutton on Tuesday declined to identify countries with which Australia is negotiating to accept almost 1,300 asylum seekers from Africa, the Middle East and Asia who now live at Australia’s expense in camps at Nauru and Papua New Guinea.
“We have been in negotiation with third countries for a long period of time and we are going to land a deal,” Dutton told, as quoted by the Associated Press.
Dutton was referring to countries that were not the asylum seekers’ country of origin or the country where they are currently placed.
The Australian newspaper reported last week that the United States and Canada could be among the countries that will accept Australia’s asylum seekers.
Few refugees have accepted offers to resettle in Papua New Guinea and Cambodia because most hope that Australia will eventually take them in.
Australia refuses to resettle any refuge who has arrived by boat since it announced the tough policy in 2013.
Currently, under Australia’s tough immigration policy, asylum seekers intercepted while trying to reach the country’s shores by boat are sent immediately to its offshore processing centers in Papua New Guinea’s Manus island or Nauru.
There are over 1,200 people currently at these camps, which rights advocates insist are more like open-air prisons instead of refugee processing centers.
The Australian government had also recently introduced to Parliament legislation to ban refugees from ever visiting Australia.
“This legislation sends a strong message to people smugglers and those considering traveling illegally to Australia by boat that Australia’s borders are now stronger than ever,” Dutton told Parliament, as quoted by the AP.
In late October, Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull said the government is seeking to amend the 1958 Migration Act to prevent irregular maritime arrivals taken to any regional processing country from being able to apply for an Australian visa, even if they are listed as refugees.
The proposed law would affect up to 3,000 people presently at the detention center or in Australia for medical treatment, as well as the thousands of others who have since returned to their home countries – they will not be allowed to ever enter Australia, be it as tourists, to do business, or as an Australian’s spouse.
Turnbull’s proposal came just weeks after global rights group Amnesty International released a damning report that documented the alleged abuse and mental torture suffered by refugees taken to Nauru.
In the 64-page report titled “Island of Despair” – the result of a combination of field and desk research carried out between July 1 and October – the group flagged the Australian government for flouting international rights conventions, saying the conditions at the camp that the refugees are subjected to amount to “torture” under international law.
It claimed that due to deteriorating mental health exacerbated by such conditions, security issues, and lack of adequate access to medical attention and education, many refugees were driven to inflicting self-harm and attempting suicide.
After the report was released, Turnbull denied the allegations on television and said during an interview that his government will stand by its strict immigration policies.
The prime minister insisted that the policy, though tough, was to prevent drownings at sea, noting that under the previous Labor leadership, there had been reports of 50,000 illegal arrivals and over 1,200 deaths.
Additional reporting by the Associated Press