SYDNEY (AFP) - Australian Prime Minister Tony Abbott said on Saturday that Iran should take back its citizens who failed in their bids for refugee status, confirming his government will lobby Tehran on the issue.
Foreign Minister Julie Bishop is expected to raise the deportation of Iranian nationals when she visits Tehran next week, a move which could ease pressure on Australian immigration camps on the Pacific islands of Nauru and Papua New Guinea.
"It's important that those who are found not to be refugees go home," Abbott told reporters in Sydney.
"And this is where we will be talking to the Iranian government about taking back people who are... Iranian citizens, because they deserve to be in Iran. They belong in Iran." Refugee advocates say Iran refuses to take back failed asylum-seekers returned against their will, and have raised questions about their safety if they are returned to their homeland.
"Obviously we are looking after those who are found to be refugees," Abbott said when asked about the possible persecution of Iranians sent home.
"But those who are not found to be refugees should go back to their home country, and if their home country is Iran, that's where they belong."
Iranians make up about 20 per cent of the 1,848 people held in immigration detention centres in Australia, according to official figures from late March, and account for many of the 1,707 held on Nauru and Papua New Guinea.
Several thousand more are understood to be living in the community on bridging visas but still awaiting the final assessment of their claims for refugee status.
"The key point is, we have a significant number of people in immigration detention at the moment from Iran," government MP Paul Fletcher told Sky News.
"Our objective is ultimately to have those people returned to the country that they came from," he added, acknowledging this could raise "difficulties and challenges".
The Sydney Morning Herald reported that the issue of returning failed asylum seekers had already been a matter of diplomatic discussion between Bishop and her Iranian counterpart.
"One of the biggest challenges that we are facing with failed asylum seekers is those refusing to return home," the unnamed diplomatic source told the newspaper.
Refugee advocates say there are about 45 Iranian asylum seekers in indefinite detention in Australia who have already had their claims for refugee status denied and are refusing to go home.
Greens Senator Sarah Hanson-Young said sending asylum seekers back was "going to put the lives of men, women and children at high risk".
Under Canberra's immigration policy, asylum seekers arriving by boat are subject to mandatory detention, and since 2013, have been denied resettlement in Australia, even if found to be genuine refugees, and are instead housed on Nauru or PNG.