CANBERRA, Australia – Australia's prime minister warned Wednesday that resettling asylum seekers in New Zealand instead of deporting them to the Pacific atoll of Nauru could encourage more asylum seekers to try to reach Australian shores by boat.
The plight of 267 asylum seekers facing deportation from Australia to Nauru will be discussed when Malcolm Turnbull meets his New Zealand counterpart John Key for annual talks in Sydney on Friday.
Turnbull said he would not comment on any possible change to Australia's policy of refusing New Zealand's offer to take 150 refugees a year.
Australia has all but stopped asylum seekers from the Middle East and Asia attempting to reach Australian shores on boats from Indonesia in the past three years by refusing to allow boat arrivals to ever settle in Australia. They are sent to detention camps on Nauru and Australia's closest neighbor, Papua New Guinea.
A few refugees in Nauru have taken up an offer to resettle in Cambodia, which is paid by Australia to accommodate them. But the Australian government fears that offering refugees a new life in New Zealand would encourage more to make the treacherous voyage in often unseaworthy fishing boats.
"We recognize that the most important thing we have to do is not at any point give any encouragement or say or do anything that the people smugglers will use for their marketing," Turnbull told reporters.
"We have a very clear-eyed focus that ensuring our borders are secure is saving lives," he said.
The 267 asylum seekers came from an Australian-run immigration detention camp on Nauru to Australia for medical treatment or to support a family member who needed treatment. They all refused to go back to Nauru pending an Australian High Court challenge to the legality of Australia's refugee policy. The court ruled against the asylum seekers two weeks ago, leaving them under threat of deportation back to Nauru.
Key's government reached an agreement in 2013 with the then Australian government to resettle 150 refugees a year from Nauru and Papua New Guinea.
Key said in New Zealand on Monday that the offer 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.