Australia immigration official faces backlash after using 'allegedly' to describe life in Nazi Germany

Activists protesting outside the electoral office of Australian Immigration Minister Peter Dutton in Brisbane, Australia, on March 2, 2016.
Activists protesting outside the electoral office of Australian Immigration Minister Peter Dutton in Brisbane, Australia, on March 2, 2016.PHOTO: EPA

SYDNEY (AFP) - Australia's immigration minister on Wednesday (March 9) faced calls to apologise after his department chief used "allegedly" to describe experiences in Nazi Germany during a defence of the government's hardline asylum-seeker policies.

A statement by immigration department head Michael Pezzullo, meant to counter a Sydney psychiatrist's criticism of the policies in the Australasian Psychiatry journal, drew fire when he used the term "allegedly" to describe experiences under Nazi rule in Germany.

"Recent comparisons of immigration detention centres to 'gulags'; suggestions that detention involves a 'public numbing and indifference' similar to that allegedly experienced in Nazi Germany; and persistent suggestions that detention facilities are places of 'torture' are highly offensive, unwarranted and plainly wrong - and yet they continue to be made in some quarters," said the statement released on Tuesday.

After a backlash on social media, the immigration department issued a follow-up statement saying "any insinuation the department denies the atrocities committed in Nazi Germany are both ridiculous and baseless".

It also accused critics of distorting the text to "create controversy".

Opposition Labor immigration spokesman Richard Marles called on minister Peter Dutton to formally withdraw the remarks and apologise, saying the second statement only compounded the problem.

"There's only one course now available to the government. The minister, not his department but the minister Peter Dutton, has to come out today and clearly withdraw these words and apologise," said Mr Marles, whose party supports the offshore detention regime.

"The reputation of the department is at stake, indeed the reputation of Australia is at stake."

The row reflects the controversial nature of the government's policies, which Canberra has long defended as necessary to stop deaths at sea while securing the nation's borders.

Canberra's tough measures against boatpeople - which involves detaining them in remote Pacific island camps indefinitely while their refugee applications are processed - have attracted strong domestic and international criticism from rights groups.

Doctors and whistleblowers have also said the detention of asylum-seekers, particularly children, has left some struggling with mental health problems.

Mr Dutton was not immediately available for comment.

The uproar came a day after two Iranian refugees held at a detention camp in Nauru in the Pacific before being resettled in Cambodia, returned home, sparking fresh criticism about a A$55 million (S$56.7 million) scheme between Canberra and the impoverished South-east Asian nation.