Australian PM leaves door open to sending refugees to New Zealand

Pro-refugee protesters rally outside the Immigration Office in Brisbane, Australia.
Pro-refugee protesters rally outside the Immigration Office in Brisbane, Australia.PHOTO: EPA

SYDNEY (REUTERS) - Australian Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull on Wednesday (Feb 17) left open the possibility of resettlement in New Zealand for asylum seekers facing repatriation to a detention camp in the tiny Pacific Island nation of Nauru.

New Zealand Prime Minister John Key arrives in Australia on Thursday (Feb 18) for talks that may revive an offer by Key to accept some asylum seekers now in Australia, providing Turnbull a way out of a growing political headache.

Key reached a deal in 2013 with former Australian Prime Minister Julia Gillard to resettle 150 refugees then in Australia as part of New Zealand's annual humanitarian intake of 750 refugees.

But Turnbull's predecessor, Tony Abbott, had declined to follow up on Key's offer.

"John Key will be here tomorrow," Turnbull told reporters in Brisbane. "He is a very good friend of Australia. We will be talking about these issues together, but I don't want to foreshadow any changes to our policy."

Australia's tough immigration policies provide that anyone intercepted while trying to reach the country by boat is sent for processing to camps in Nauru and Papua New Guinea's Manus Island. They are never eligible to be resettled in Australia.

Australia's High Court this month rejected a legal test case that challenged its right to deport 267 refugee children and their families who had been brought from Nauru, about 3,000km northeast of Australia, for medical treatment.

The detention centre, which houses more than 500 people, has drawn widespread criticism for harsh conditions and reports of systemic child abuse.

The number of asylum seekers trying to reach Australia is small in comparison with those arriving in Europe, but border security is a hot-button political issue in Australia, which is scheduled to hold a national election later in the year.

The New Zealand offer still stands, Key told reporters on Monday (Feb 15), ahead of his first visit to Australia since Turnbull ousted Abbott in a party coup last September.

"If they wanted us to take people then - subject to them meeting the criteria - the New Zealand government would be obliged to do that, because we've given that commitment that we'd do so," Fairfax quoted Key as saying.

Abbott had campaigned relentlessly on securing Australia's borders and argued that resettling refugees in New Zealand would spur people smugglers to resume attempts to reach Australia.

Turnbull is under pressure to tackle the Nauru repatriation issue amid criticism from rights groups, the United Nations and medical bodies, including the British medical journal, the Lancet, which slammed the policy in an editorial last week.

Australia says the policies are necessary to stop asylum seekers drowning aboard the unseaworthy vessels used by people smugglers to ship them from Indonesia to Australia.