Australia has ordered an inquiry into claims of sexual misconduct by staff at a refugee camp in Nauru, including whether the reports were fabricated by aid workers.

The government said on Friday that 10 aid workers were removed from the South Pacific island following reports of coaching detainees to commit self-harm protests.

Asylum seekers who arrive on people-smuggling boats are denied resettlement in Australia and sent to camps on Nauru and Papua New Guinea. The UN and rights groups have criticised the policy, under which migrants face long periods of detention while they are processed.

If people want to be political activists, that's their choice, but they don't get to do it on the taxpayer's dollar and working in a sensitive place like Nauru

Scott Morrison, Immigration minister

Refugee advocates this week said women in the Nauru centre were regularly required to strip and exchange sexual favours with guards for access to the showers, prompting calls for an investigation by the opposition Labor and Greens parties.

Greens senator Sarah Hanson-Young said there were also accusations children had been forced to have sex in front of guards at the centre.

Immigration Minister Scott Morrison said the reports were serious and "abhorrent" if true.

"Such allegations should never be taken lightly; should never be made lightly," he told reporters in Canberra.

He said he had also received reports that staff of service providers at the Nauru centre allegedly engaged in a broader campaign seeking to undermine the government's immigration policies.

This included the alleged misuse of official reports, orchestrating protest activity - including the use of children in protests and coaching detainees to harm themselves to ensure their evacuation to Australia for treatment.

  'Coaching self-harm'

"If people want to be political activists, that's their choice, but they don't get to do it on the taxpayer's dollar and working in a sensitive place like Nauru," Morrison said.

"Making false claims and worse allegedly coaching self-harm and using children in protests is also completely unacceptable, whatever their political views or whatever their agendas."

Morrison said 10 workers from the Save the Children charity were to be removed from the small island. He stressed that they were not suspected of sexual misconduct.

Save the Children Australia, which provides counselling and support on the island, said cases had been documented of children sewing their lips together and refusing food and water in protest at their indefinite incarceration. 

Paul Ronalds, head of the group, told Al Jazeera that Save the Children "categorically rejected" allegations that staff had fabricated stories of abuse or encouraged self-harm.

"I think this is a case of the government shooting the messengers rather then dealing with the fundamental problem here, which is a policy that leads to significant psychological and physical harm to children through mandatory detention," he said.

Ronalds said his organisation had received no evidence from the government in relation to the allegations and that an internal probe to date had shown that "there's been no misconduct on behalf of Save the Children Australia staff".

Morrison has previously said his Liberal party's asylum-seeker policies were effective in stopping people from dying at sea by deterring them from boarding boats bound for Australia.

The minister said he expected the independent investigation to have an interim report within seven weeks, with a final report by the end of the year.

Source: Al Jazeera and agencies