PERTH (Reuters) - The premier of an Australian state offered on Saturday to look after a group of asylum seekers facing repatriation to a camp on a remote Pacific island, adding to opposition to the federal government’s policy of offshore detention.
Daniel Andrews, premier of Victoria state, called on the federal government not to return the 267 refugees, including 80 children and their families, who had been brought to Australia from Nauru island for medical treatment.
“Victoria stands ready to assist and care for the children and their families,” Andrews wrote in a letter to Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull that Andrews posted on his Twitter account.
His state would take full responsibility for their housing, health and education, he said.
“Sending these children and their families to Nauru is not the Australian way ... It’s wrong. Medical professionals tell us this. Humanitarian agencies tell us this,” he said.
Under Australia’s immigration policy, asylum seekers attempting to come by boat are intercepted and sent to camps on Nauru or on Manus island in Papua New Guinea. They are not offered resettlement in Australia.
Most people trying to reach Australia by boat are from the Middle East and South Asia. They usually make the voyage through people-smuggling networks via Indonesia, often in rickety vessels.
The detention center on Nauru houses about 500 people and has been widely criticized by human rights activists for harsh conditions and reports of systemic child abuse.
Andrews said sending the group, including 37 children born in Australia, to Nauru “will needlessly expose them to a life of physical and emotional trauma”.
The Australian government says it does not place asylum seekers at risk of harm and offers to return them to their countries.
On Wednesday, the High Court rejected a legal test case that challenged Australia’s right to deport detained asylum seekers to Nauru, about 3,000 km (1,800 miles) northeast of Australia.
The High Court decision sparked protests, drew condemnation from the United Nations and prompted church leaders to offer the asylum seekers sanctuary.
Refugee rights groups praised Andrews for his letter.
“This is fantastic wonderful news,” Pamela Curr, an advocate at the Asylum Seeker Resource Centre said in an emailed statement. “First legal, churches, community groups, grandmothers, unions, schools, and now a state premier.”
The government justifies its tough policy on asylum seekers saying it prevents deaths at sea by discouraging others from making the journey and many voters approve of it.
Reporting by Morag MacKinnon; Editing by Robert Birsel