Australia’s prime minister has signalled he might accept New Zealand’s long-standing offer to resettle 150 refugees detained on remote Pacific islands, as long as laws are changed to ban them from ever travelling to Australia.
Prime Minister Scott Morrison said on Wednesday he was willing to brief non-government senators on a travel ban bill. “There is no support for that bill at present,” Morrison told reporters.
The opposition Labor Party has argued that a lifetime ban on the refugees ever visiting Australia on a tourist or business visa is unnecessary and against Australia’s interests.
New Zealand citizens are allowed to live and work in Australia for life, a unique status the government fears banished refugees would use as a “backdoor” into Australia.
The conservative government is under mounting pressure to relax a five-year-old policy that detains asylum seekers who try to get to Australia by boat on Nauru and Manus islands and bans them from ever settling in Australia.
While the policy appears to have ended people-smuggling, there is mounting concern over the fate of hundreds of people, including children, confined to the Nauru detention centre and in Manus, which is reserved for single men and is part of Papua New Guinea.
The UN refugee agency urged the government last week to bring the asylum seekers to Australia amid a “collapsing health situation”. Three government lawmakers have also appealed to Morrison to accept families with children from Nauru so they can receive adequate medical care.
Morrison’s policy shift could also be influenced by a crucial by-election in a progressive Sydney electorate on Saturday with the government’s single-seat majority in the lower house at stake.
The United States has agreed to resettle up to 1,250 refugees from the islands, but only 462 had found new homes in the US in the past 14 months, according to Refugee Action Coalition spokesman Ian Rintoul. A plane carrying 17 men from Papua New Guinea to the US left on Tuesday.
There are 1,337 refugees and asylum seekers on the islands, according to a government statement released on Wednesday.