Australia is talking to the Philippines about resettling illegal migrants who try to reach its shores.
A multi-million deal to resettle refugees from an Australian-run detention camp on the Pacific nation of Nauru to Cambodia already exists. But so far, only four refugees have taken up the offer of cash, free health insurance and accommodation to move from Nauru to the Cambodian capital Phnom Penh.
That prompted critics to dub the deal an expensive flop and sent Australia’s government looking for another solution.
Australia refuses to accept any refugees who attempt to reach its shores by boat. It pays Nauru and Papua New Guinea, which has a detention centre on Manus Island, to hold them instead.
Immigration minister Peter Dutton said the Australian government had been in talks with several countries, including the Philippines, about possibly resettling its refugees.
“We have been very open to discussions for a long period of time with those partners because we have been very clear about the fact that people on Nauru and people on Manus who have sought to come to our country illegally by boat won’t be settling in Australia,” Mr Dutton said.
“We have a bilateral arrangement with Cambodia. If we can strike other arrangements with other countries, we will do that.”
The Cambodia deal has been widely condemned by human rights groups, who say the south-east Asian nation is hardly an ideal home for refugees, given its long history of poverty, corruption and human rights abuses.
The potential for a deal with the Philippines prompted similar concerns. Mr Dutton was asked what guarantees of safety Australia could give refugees who resettle in a nation that is grappling with violent kidnappings and terrorism.
“We can provide the same guarantees that we can to Australians that travel to the Philippines each year, the expats that live in the Philippines and across south-east Asia or other parts of the world,” he said, adding that refugees would be resettled there only on a voluntary basis.
Mr Dutton declined to release further details, including a time frame for the deal or how many refugees could be resettled.
Ian Rintoul, Sydney-based director of Australian advocacy group Refugee Action Coalition, said the potential deal demonstrated how desperate the government had become to find an alternative to its Cambodia programme. He doubts many refugees would be eager to relocate to the Philippines.
“The issues that are very real in Cambodia are just as real in the Philippines,” Mr Rintoul said. “The possibility of education, secure jobs ... They’re unlikely to get that kind of secure future in the Philippines.”
Sarah Hanson-Young, a senator with the minor Greens party, said Australia was once again passing its responsibility to care for refugees on to another poor country.
“It’s a trade of human lives and it’s time the minister was upfront about it,” she said.
In Manila, Department of Foreign Affairs spokesman Charles Jose said Australia's proposal was ``under consultation'', adding that foreign secretary Albert del Rosario and his Australian counterpart Julie Bishop discussed the matter among other things on the sidelines of the United Nations General Assembly in New York.
A critic of the Philippines’ government condemned the potential deal and called on President Benigno Aquino to give details on how it would work.
“It is just shameful that a developed nation like Australia would refuse these refugees and instead move to have them relocated to a struggling, developing country like the Philippines,” Renato Reyes, secretary general of the left-wing Filipino group Bayan, said.