SYDNEY (Reuters) – Australia is in talks with Indonesia, Malaysia and the Philippines, among six nations, to resettle asylum seekers detained in Papua New Guinea and the Pacific island nation of Nauru, the Sydney Morning Herald said on Saturday.
The number of asylum seekers trying to reach Australia is small in comparison with those arriving in Europe, but border security is a hot-button political issue in Australia, which is scheduled to hold a national election later in the year.
Negotiations with the governments of the three Southeast Asian countries focus on potentially settling 1,459 detainees, many of whom arrived during previous administrations, the newspaper said.
Three other countries are also involved in preliminary stages of talks, it added, but did not identify them.
A spokeswoman for Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull declined to confirm or deny the report.
However, Foreign Minister Julie Bishop cautioned that it was “early days” for the talks, as pressing local issues would influence the discussions.
“Some of them have domestic issues, like elections,” Bishop said in a statement. The Philippines goes to the polls on May 9 to choose a new president and vice president, among other officials.
Australia’s tough immigration policies provide that anyone intercepted while trying to reach the country by boat is sent for processing to camps in Nauru and Papua New Guinea’s Manus Island. They are never eligible to be resettled in Australia.
Past Australian efforts to resettle asylum seekers elsewhere ran into hurdles.
Last October, Philippine President Benigno Aquino said the country had “no capacity” to permanently relocate asylum seekers, adding that his government was “challenged to meet the needs of its own people right now”.
Australia had offered $150 million (£104.1 million) spread over five years in exchange for permanent relocation of some refugees.
A deal struck with Cambodia was halted after only four asylum seekers were resettled.
In 2011, the Australian high court ruled invalid a deal with Malaysia, as it was not a signatory to the United Nations Convention on Refugees.
Australia has also received criticism from the United Nations and rights groups for its hardline policy.
Since 2012, people on boats trying to reach Australia have been turned back or taken to camps in Nauru, where there have been reports of assaults and systemic child abuse, or Papua New Guinea, where Canberra has set up processing centres.
(Writing by Peter Gosnell; Editing by Clarence Fernandez)