Australian Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull warned Wednesday that more asylum seekers could try to reach Australian shores if refugees in Australia are deported to New Zealand instead of Nauru.
New Zealand Prime Minister John Key arrives in Australia on Thursday to discuss the revival of an offer to accept asylum seekers to New Zealand, providing Turnbull a way out of a growing political headache with the plight of 267 asylum seekers facing deportation from Australia to Nauru.
Turnbull said he would not comment on a possible change to Australia’s policy of refusing an offer made from New Zealand to take 150 refugees a year, as part of New Zealand's annual humanitarian intake of 750 refugees.
"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 has stopped refugees from the Middle East and Asia attempting to reach Australian shores on boats from Indonesia in the past three years by forcefully returning boats that reached Australian shores.
Australia fears that offering refugees asylum in New Zealand would encourage more unseaworthy fishing boats to make a treacherous voyage in the Pacific Ocean.
The 267 asylum seekers, including babies, came from an Australian run detention camp on Nauru back to Australia for emergency medical treatment, they all refused to return to Nauru by pending a challenge to an Australian High Court on the legality of Australia’s refugee policy.
The refugees are now under threat of deportation back to Nauru when the court ruled against them two weeks ago.
Australia’s tough immigration policies send anyone who reaches the country by boat for processing to camps in Nauru and Papua New Guinea’s Manus Island, they are never eligible to be resettled in Australia.
The detention centre in Nauru, which houses more than 500 people, has drawn widespread criticism for harsh conditions and reports of systemic child abuse.
According to Amnesty International, Nauru is an island country in the southwestern Pacific Ocean consisting of a toxic mix of uncertainty, unlawful detention and inhumane conditions.
One refugee told TRT World the conditions in Nauru were overcrowded, unhygienic and oppressive.
Key’s government agreed to resettle 150 refugees a year from Nauru and Papua New Guinea in 2013, Key said on Monday that the offer still remained open despite it never being accepted by Australia.
"If they want us to take people, then subject to them meeting the criteria, New Zealand would be obliged to do that because we've given a commitment to do so," Key told reporters.
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.
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.