SYDNEY – Australia is in talks to send refugees who try to reach its shores illegally to the Philippines, the immigration minister said Friday.
Australia already has a multi-million dollar deal to resettle refugees from an Australia-run detention camp on the Pacific nation of Nauru to Cambodia. But so far, only four refugees have taken up the offer of cash, free health insurance and accommodation to move from Nauru to the Cambodian capital of Phnom Penh. That has prompted critics to dub the deal an expensive flop and sent the government looking for another solution.
Australia refuses to accept any refugees who attempt to reach its shores by boat. It pays Nauru and Papua New Guinea, which has a detention center on Manus Island, to hold them instead.
On Friday, Immigration Minister Peter Dutton confirmed that the government has been in talks with several countries, including the Philippines, about possibly resettling its refugees in those nations.
"We have been very open to discussions for a long period of time with those partners because we have been very clear about the fact that people on Nauru and people on Manus who have sought to come to our country illegally by boat won't be settling in Australia," Dutton told reporters in Canberra, the nation's capital. "We have a bilateral arrangement with Cambodia. If we can strike other arrangements with other countries, we will do that."
The Cambodia deal has been widely condemned by human rights groups, who say the southeast Asian nation is hardly an ideal home for refugees given its long history of poverty, corruption and human rights abuses.
The potential for a deal with the Philippines prompted similar concerns. Dutton was asked what guarantees of safety Australia could give refugees who resettle in a nation that is grappling with violent kidnappings and terrorism.
"We can provide the same guarantees that we can to Australians that travel to the Philippines each year, the expats that live in the Philippines and across southeast Asia or other parts of the world," Dutton replied, adding that refugees would be resettled there only on a voluntary basis.
Dutton declined to release further details, including a timeframe for the deal or how many refugees could be resettled.
Ian Rintoul, Sydney-based director of the Australian advocacy group Refugee Action Coalition, said the potential deal demonstrates how desperate the government has become to find an alternative to its Cambodia program. He doubts many refugees would be eager to relocate to the Philippines.
"The issues that are very real in Cambodia are just as real in the Philippines," Rintoul said. "The possibility of education, secure jobs ... They're unlikely to get that kind of secure future in the Philippines."
Sarah Hanson-Young, a senator with the minor Greens party, said Australia was once again passing its responsibility to care for refugees onto another poor country.
"It's a trade of human lives and it's time the minister was up front about it," she said.
A critic of the Philippines' government slammed the potential deal and called on President Benigno Aquino III to release details on how it would work.
"It is just shameful that a developed nation like Australia would refuse these refugees and instead move to have them relocated to a struggling, developing country like the Philippines," Renato Reyes, secretary general of the left-wing Filipino group Bayan, said in a statement.
Associated Press writer Oliver Teves in Manila, Philippines, contributed to this report.