Resettle Nauru child refugees, two independents tell Australia PM

SYDNEY (Reuters) - Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison should transfer child refugees off a remote Pacific detention center, two independent lawmakers said on Monday in return for supporting his shaky government, a move that would be a major policy shift.

Prime Minister Scott Morrison addresses the media on the grounds of Kirribilli House, Sydney, Australia, October 21, 2018. AAP/Chris Pavlich/via REUTERS

The Australian government has steadfastly refused to allow any refugees arriving by boat to enter the country.

Morrison is poised to lose his one-seat parliamentary majority after voters in a blue-ribbon Sydney electorate of Wentworth on Saturday shunned the ruling Liberal Party in a by-election amid anger at the recent ousting of former prime minister Malcolm Turnbull.

Although counting continues, Morrison is likely to have to rely on the support of five independents to prevent a no confidence motion that could trigger an election. The next poll is due by May 2019.

Kerryn Phelps, who is on course to win the Wentworth by-election, said Morrison should heed advice from the United Nations and immediately relocate child refugees held indefinitely on the tiny Pacific island of Nauru.

“The first order of business is to get kids off Nauru,” Phelps told Sky News Australia, echoing a similar demand from another independent lawmaker, Cathy McGowan.

Australia has been widely criticized by the United Nations and rights groups for detaining asylum seekers who try to reach its shores by boat, even if they are found to be refugees, and keeping them on offshore processing centers in Nauru and Papua New Guinea.

Recent attention has focused on child refugees on Nauru, who suffer mental heath issues which has led to cases of self harm, the doctors’ group Médecins Sans Frontières said.

The offshore detention has been a cornerstone policy of the conservative government and helped it to win several elections.

Phelps and McGowan made their demands as Morrison seeks a meeting with the independents.

“Ideally, I’d like the government to go full term, but we, the crossbenchers, will have those discussions today with the prime minister, the treasurer and various other ministers,” McGowan told the Australian Broadcasting Corporation.

Another two independents have ruled out supporting Morrison, and a third, Bob Katter, has made demands regarding loans for drought-affected farmers and other agriculture related policies.

Analysts said the Wentworth result could accelerate the timetable for the next general election.

Australia’s Electoral Commission on Monday said Phelps was leading Morrison’s Liberal candidate by nearly 1,700 votes, with 3000 postal votes yet to be counted.

The ballot was propelled into international prominence after Morrison sought to garner support from Jewish voters, who account for 13 percent of Wentworth’s electorate, by suggesting Australia could recognize Jerusalem as Israel’s capital and move its embassy there from Tel Aviv.

Reporting by Colin Packham; Editing by Daniel Wallis and Darren Schuettler