SYDNEY • Australia yesterday snubbed New Zealand's renewed offer to resettle 150 refugees held at remote Pacific camps, despite the closure of a detention centre in Papua New Guinea (PNG) that has triggered a stand-off between detainees and the authorities.
Canberra has been forced on the defensive by the move from Wellington's new government, with Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull saying Australia would instead prioritise a similar deal with the US to resettle refugees in America, despite slow progress. The issue re-emerged when the conservative Australian Prime Minister met his centre-left New Zealand counterpart Jacinda Ardern for the first time yesterday in Sydney.
Pressure to resettle refugees increased after the Australian centre on PNG's Manus Island was shut last Tuesday after the nation's Supreme Court ruled it unconstitutional. About 600 detainees are refusing to leave, citing safety fears if they move to transition centres where locals are reportedly hostile.
But conditions in the camp are deteriorating with limited food and water and electricity cut off, leading the United Nations to warn of a humanitarian emergency.
Under its tough immigration policy, Canberra sends asylum seekers who try to reach Australia by boat to two camps, in Manus and Nauru, and they are barred from resettling in Australia.
Australia has struggled to move the refugees to third countries such as Cambodia or PNG. "The offer is very genuine and remains on the table," Ms Ardern told reporters after meeting Mr Turnbull.
But the Australian leader replied that while he appreciated the offer - first made by Wellington in 2013 - "we are not taking it up at this time". "We have an arrangement with the United States... so we want to pursue those, conclude those arrangements and then in the wake of that, obviously we can consider other ones," he said at the joint press conference.
Under the US deal - struck with former US president Barack Obama and criticised by his successor Donald Trump - just 54 refugees have been accepted with 24 flown to the US. The agreement had envisaged resettling up to 1,250 refugees from Manus and Nauru to America, but the vetting process has been slow. Mr Turnbull said his government had successfully stopped the arrival of asylum-seeker boats and cited fears the people-smuggling trade could be restarted. "Many of those people smugglers were trying to get people to New Zealand," he added.
Australia, however, has come under fire from the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, with a spokesman last Friday calling on Canberra to move the men from Manus to Australia and criticising the offshore asylum processing policy as "unsustainable".