SYDNEY (Reuters) - Australian Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull said on Wednesday he was “concerned” about the country’s controversial offshore immigration detention centers, although he stopped short of committing his government to reconsidering them.
Turnbull, a wealthy former investment banker considered politically progressive, ousted conservative Tony Abbott as leader of their Liberal Party last week after months of dismal poll numbers and a string of perceived policy missteps.
Asylum seekers have long been a lightning-rod political issue in Australia, although it has never received anywhere near the number of refugees currently flooding into Europe as they try to flee instability in the Middle East and North Africa.
Australia has vowed to stop asylum seekers reaching its shores, turning boats back to Indonesia when it can and sending those it cannot for detention in camps on Manus island in impoverished Papua New Guinea and on Nauru in the South Pacific.
The United Nations and human rights groups have criticized Australia over the harsh conditions at the camps and its tough asylum-seeker policies, which Abbott defended as necessary to stop deaths at sea and often described as one of his government’s biggest achievements.
Turnbull, who criticized Abbott for making major policy decisions without consulting his ministers, acknowledged public concerns over the detention policies but indicated that any change would have to be taken up by cabinet.
“I have the same concerns about the situation of people on Manus and Nauru as you do, as all Australians do,” Turnbull told Sky News Australia in his first wide-ranging interview since becoming leader.
“This is an area that clearly is one that is controversial, that is a challenging one. It is certainly one that close attention is being paid to ... but we are not going to make policy changes on the run,” he said.
Around 50,000 refugees arrived on roughly 800 boats under former Labor Party governments between 2007 and 2013, Immigration Minister Peter Dutton said earlier this year, underscoring the sharp decline since the policies were enacted.
Labor earlier dropped its opposition to the turn-back policy earlier this year amid polls showing that a strong majority of Australians supported it.
Dutton rejected suggestions that Turnbull’s comments indicated that a change in asylum-seeker policy was being considered.
“I heard the interview with the prime minister this morning and I thought that he made a statement of the obvious in terms of making sure that we can continue our policies which have stopped the boats,” Dutton told reporters in Canberra.
Reporting by Matt Siegel; Editing by Paul Tait