SYDNEY • Australian Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull has said he is "concerned" about the country's controversial offshore immigration detention centres, although he stopped short of committing his government to reconsidering them.
Mr Turnbull, a wealthy former investment banker considered politically progressive, ousted conservative Tony Abbott as Liberal Party leader last week after months of dismal poll numbers and a string of perceived policy missteps.
Asylum seekers have long been a lightning-rod political issue in Australia, although it has not received anywhere near the number of refugees currently flooding Europe as they try to flee instability in the Middle East and North Africa.
Australia has vowed to stop asylum seekers from reaching its shores, turning boats back to Indonesia when it can and sending those it cannot for detention in camps on Manus island in impoverished Papua New Guinea and on Nauru in the South Pacific, with no option of resettling in Australia.
The UN and human rights groups have criticised Australia over the harsh conditions at the camps and its tough asylum-seeker policies, which Mr Abbott defended as necessary to stop deaths at sea and described as one of his government's biggest achievements.
Often with little besides the clothes on their back, asylum seekers are placed on bridging visas that prevent them from taking full-time jobs, leaving them vulnerable to poverty and homelessness, according to the Australian Human Rights Commission.
Mr Turnbull, who criticised Mr Abbott for making major policy decisions without consulting his ministers, acknowledged public concerns over the detention policies but indicated any change would have to be taken up by the Cabinet.
"I have the same concerns about the situation of people on Manus and Nauru as you do, as all Australians do," Mr Turnbull told Sky News Australia yesterday in his first wide-ranging interview since becoming leader.
"This is an area that clearly is one that is controversial, that is a challenging one. It is certainly one that close attention is being paid to... but we are not going to make policy changes on the run," he said.
Around 50,000 refugees arrived on roughly 800 boats between 2007 and 2013, Immigration Minister Peter Dutton said earlier this year, underscoring the sharp decline since the policies took effect. Australia turned back 633 people in 20 boats over a course of 18 months from last year.
Labor had dropped its opposition to the turn-back policy earlier this year amid polls showing that a strong majority of Australians supported it.
Mr Dutton rejected suggestions that Mr Turnbull's comments indicated a change in asylum-seeker policy was being considered.
"I heard the interview with the Prime Minister this morning and I thought that he made a statement of the obvious in terms of making sure that we can continue our policies which have stopped the boats," Mr Dutton told reporters in Canberra.
REUTERS, AGENCE FRANCE-PRESSE