Public pressure was mounting on Australia’s government on Sunday to remove refugee children detained on the Pacific island of Nauru, possibly to New Zealand, even as the prime minister raised fears such transfers could encourage new arrivals.
Under a harsh policy meant to deter asylum-seekers from reaching Australia by boat, Canberra sends arrivals to remote Pacific camps for processing and bars them from resettling in Australia.
But domestic and international criticism of the camps has grown amid reports of abuse, suicides and lengthy detention periods, even as the government says the policy is discouraging asylum-seekers from embarking on dangerous sea voyages.
A YouGov Galaxy poll commissioned by Sydney’s Sunday Telegraph found 79 per cent of those surveyed want children and their families transferred off Nauru.
The children’s plight was highlighted earlier this month after Nauru kicked out Medecins Sans Frontieres (MSF), a global medical charity that had been treating asylum-seekers in the camps.
MSF said many children were suffering “traumatic withdrawal syndrome” and were unable to eat, drink or talk.
The UN refugee agency UNHCR added in mid-October that the health situation of asylum-seekers and refugees was “collapsing”.
Ahead of a crucial Sydney by-election this month, Prime Minister Scott Morrison seemed willing to work with the Labour opposition to allow some refugees to be transferred to New Zealand, although they would still be blocked from entering Australia.
But with ongoing counting pointing to a loss in the seat for the government, Morrison has since appeared to back away from a deal.
“I just want to get them off, but I want to get them off in a way which does not put more children on Nauru,” he told commercial broadcaster Channel Nine on Friday.
“If one boat turns up or one child is floating face down in the water, how would Australia feel then?”
Within Morrison’s Liberal Party, three MPs have so far called for children to be removed.
New Zealand has an open offer to take 150 people from Nauru, and Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern said Monday she expected women and children to be prioritised if Australia accepts the proposal.
There are 635 asylum-seekers and refugees on Nauru, including 52 children, according to Immigration Minister David Coleman.
There are also some 600 men in transition centres on Papua New Guinea’s Manus Island after the camp there was closed late last year, according to refugee advocates.
Under a deal with former US president Barack Obama, 439 people have so far been resettled from Manus and Nauru to the US, Coleman added.