SYDNEY,. Australia will relocate dozens of children forcibly settled on the Pacific island of Nauru by the end of the year, officials have indicated, softening a hardline anti-asylum stance amid criticism at home and abroad.
Under a harsh policy meant to deter asylum-seekers from reaching Australia by boat, Canberra sends arrivals to remote Pacific camps on Nauru and Papua New Guinea’s Manus Island for processing, barring them from ever resettling in Australia.
But the government has been “quietly” transferring children off Nauru, amid public outcry and mounting concerns for their welfare.
“There are hardly any children in Nauru and [Papua] New Guinea and we expect that by the end of this year there will be none,” Australia’s high commissioner in London George Brandis told UK talkback radio station LBC today.
Newspaper The Australian earlier quoted government sources saying there were 40 children remaining at processing centres on Nauru and they would be transferred to Australia by the end of the year.
The decision comes amid a string of reports by non-governmental groups and the media of abuse, depression and suicides on Nauru.
A recent visit by AFP to the Nauru camp revealed deep desperation among detainees.
One inmate’s 12-year-old daughter doused herself in petrol and threatened to set herself alight, after spending half a decade and almost half her life in the camp.
A recent poll commissioned by Sydney’s Sunday Telegraph — a tabloid that usually supports the right-leaning government — found 79 per cent of Australians surveyed want children and their families transferred off Nauru.
Ahead of a crucial Sydney by-election last month, Prime Minister Scott Morrison flirted with the idea of allowing some refugees to be transferred to New Zealand, although they would still be blocked from entering Australia.
Today, he claimed criticism of poor living conditions among the would-be asylum seekers was offensive to the people of Nauru.
“I think people need to be very respectful of our neighbours in Nauru. Because it’s where their children live, this is where they go to school, this is where they have businesses, this is where they have their lives.”
The migrants forcibly settled there are from countries as diverse as Iran and Myanmar.
‘Still in limbo’
Under a deal with former American president Barack Obama, 439 people of a potential 1,250 have so far been resettled from Manus and Nauru to the United States.
But more than 600 remain on Nauru, while refugee support groups say some 600 men are still in transition centres on Manus after the camp there was closed late last year.
Rights groups say hundreds of asylum-seeker children have been brought to Australia in the past few years, accompanied by their families, but many remain “in limbo”, scattered across the country and often split from their parents.
“They (families) aren’t given visas, they are basically held in community detention until their issues are resolved and some of them are actually being held in fenced detention centres,” George Newhouse of the National Justice Project told reporters today.
“Even when you bring them to Australia, if you leave families with a sense of uncertainty, it is going to be very difficult for the children to recover,” he added.
Canberra has long boasted its hardline policy is discouraging asylum-seekers from embarking on dangerous sea voyages.
“Once people have received their medical assistance, then the expectation is that they will return to their country of origin,” Home Affairs Minister Peter Dutton said today when asked about children being moved to Australia. — AFP