SIDNEY – Australia is in talks with the Philippines about the possibility of that country accepting asylum seekers, currently being held on remote Pacific islands, who had tried to reach Australia by boat, the immigration minister said on Friday.
A similar plan to resettle asylum seekers in Cambodia has faltered, with just four having moved there since the country reached a similar agreement with Australia last year.
“We have had bilateral discussions with other countries including the Philippines at an official level, at a ministerial level, over a number of months,” Peter Dutton, Australia’s immigration minister, told reporters. He said the foreign minister, Julie Bishop, had discussed the matter with other officials while at the United Nations General Assembly in New York recently.
Mr. Dutton declined to provide details of the possible plan. The Australian newspaper, which earlier reported news of the discussions, said it could cost Australia more than 150 million Australian dollars, or $108 million, citing unidentified government officials.
The Philippines’ foreign affairs secretary, Albert F. del Rosario, met with Ms. Bishop on the sidelines of the General Assembly and discussed “irregular migration and migrants in distress,” among other issues, according to a Philippine statement last week.
Australia refuses to accept asylum seekers who try to reach its shores by boat, and it has sent hundreds to detention centers on Manus Island in Papua New Guinea and the tiny Pacific island nation of Nauru. Australia says the policy has helped reduce the number of people attempting the risky sea voyage. But advocates for refugees say that the detainees are being held in harsh and dangerous conditions, and that they should not be shunted onto other developing nations.
The Cambodia plan, under which Australia pledged $29 million in aid in return for Cambodia’s accepting refugees from Nauru, has also been criticized as a waste of money. Few asylum seekers expressed interest in relocating to the impoverished Southeast Asian nation, and Cambodia said recently that it was not eager to accept any more.
A Philippine advocacy group, Bayan, called on President Benigno S. Aquino III to reveal specifics of the negotiations with Australia. “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,” said the group’s secretary general, Renato M. Reyes Jr.
This week, Australia’s High Court heard a legal challenge to the offshore detention policy, filed on behalf of a detainee from Bangladesh who had been sent from Nauru to Australia for medical treatment. Advocates want to prevent the government from sending her, along with about 200 other people who received treatment in Australia, back to Manus and Nauru. It is unclear when the court will issue a ruling.
Several cases of women who reported that they were raped on Nauru have also captured national attention in Australia, spurring further criticism of the detention program. One of the women is pregnant and says she wants to travel to Australia for an abortion, and an Iranian asylum seeker said to have been gang raped on Nauru in May is being treated in a hospital in Brisbane.
An Australian Senate report in August documented testimony about dangerous conditions at the Nauru center. This week, Nauru said that it was easing rules to allow the people being held there 24-hour freedom of movement, and that it would process all of the more than 600 outstanding asylum claims within a week. A Nauru official told the Australian Broadcasting Corporation on Thursday that as many as 200 of those claims might not be completed in that time frame, however.
By Austin Ramzy