SYDNEY – A dozen mothers in an asylum-seeker camp have reportedly attempted suicide so their children can be settled in Australia, piling pressure on Prime Minister Tony Abbott, who said Wednesday he would not be morally blackmailed.
The Sydney Morning Herald said the women tried to kill themselves this week after being told they would be taken from a detention center on Christmas Island to Papua New Guinea or Nauru.
Any boat people who arrived in Australia after July 19, 2013, cannot be resettled in the country, regardless of whether they are eventually judged to be genuine refugees. They are instead sent to detention facilities or for resettlement on islands in the Pacific.
The Australian Human Rights Commission said it was aware of “seven women who have either attempted suicide, threatened suicide or self-harmed on Christmas Island” in the last two days. “In recent weeks, we are aware of 13 asylum seekers who fall into those categories,” a spokeswoman added.
The damaging claims come as Australia faces growing pressure over its controversial immigration policies, with High Court action under way over the fate of 153 Sri Lankans being held in custody on the high seas.
They are currently detained on a customs boat as lawyers argue that any transfer back to Colombo would be illegal, with concerns about the way they were screened.
Another boat carrying 41 Sri Lankans has already been returned, with the adults on board Tuesday charged in a Galle court with trying to leave Sri Lanka illegally.
The crime is punishable by up to two years’ imprisonment.
Some of those sent back claimed they were abused, given little food and treated “worse than dogs” by Australian customs officials, allegations that Immigration Minister Scott Morrison Wednesday angrily denied.
“I find those allegations offensive and reject them absolutely,” he said during a trip to Colombo for a meeting with top officials from President Mahinda Rajapakse’s government.
Abbott described the Christmas Island claims as “harrowing” but said his government would not be held hostage. “This is not going to be a government which has our policy driven by people who are attempting to hold us over a moral barrel. We won’t be driven by that,” he told Channel Nine television. “The fact is that the people that are on Nauru — they’re being clothed, housed, fed and above all else, they’re safe. They are not going to be subjected to any persecution in Nauru.
“Now, I don’t believe that people ought to be able to say to us, ‘Unless you accept me as a permanent resident, I am going to commit self-harm.’ I don’t believe any Australian would want us to capitulate to moral blackmail.”
Christmas Island Shire Council President Gordon Thompson said the women believed that if they died their orphaned children would have a better chance of being settled in Australia, the Herald reported. “They are saying ‘the babies have a better chance at life if I am dead,’” he said. “It’s a shocking conclusion to come to, but that’s the state of helplessness in the center at the moment.”
The women, whose nationalities were not known, reportedly either tried to hang themselves or cut themselves with glass.
Labor opposition leader Bill Shorten accused Abbott of “washing his hands” of asylum seekers. “You mightn’t wish this was so, but these people are human beings in the care of Australia and the care of the Australian government,” he said. “It is not good enough to wash your hands on the safety of human beings.”
Greens party immigration spokeswoman Sarah Hanson-Young said she had spoken to people inside the Christmas Island camp, and reports of attempted suicide were true. “Two nights ago, almost 10 mothers were on suicide watch,” she said, blasting the Abbott government for pushing people to a “point of self destruction.”
“It’s pretty horrific to push a mother to a point of saying ‘Well, if I need to sacrifice myself for my children, maybe that’s what I’ll do,’ ” she said.