Australia’s immigration minister Wednesday brushed off calls to apologise after his department chief used “allegedly” to describe experiences in Nazi Germany during a defence of the government’s hardline asylum-seeker policies.
Canberra’s tough measures against boatpeople -- which involve detaining them in remote Pacific island camps while their refugee applications are processed -- have attracted strong domestic and international criticism from rights groups.
Doctors and whistleblowers have also said the detention of asylum-seekers, particularly children, has left some struggling with mental health problems.
But a statement by immigration department head Michael Pezzullo -- meant to counter a Sydney psychiatrist’s criticism of the policies in the Australasian Psychiatry journal -- drew fire when he used the term “allegedly” to describe experiences under Nazi rule in Germany.
“Recent comparisons of immigration detention centres to ‘gulags’; suggestions that detention involves a ‘public numbing and indifference’ similar to that allegedly experienced in Nazi Germany; and persistent suggestions that detention facilities are places of ‘torture’ are highly offensive, unwarranted and plainly wrong -- and yet they continue to be made in some quarters,” the statement released Tuesday said.
Immigration minister Peter Dutton on Wednesday slammed critics of his department chief, saying in a statement that “any suggestion that Mr Pezzullo deliberately sought to deny or qualify the crimes of the Nazi era is patently ludicrous”.
After the backlash on social media, the immigration department had issued a follow-up statement saying “any insinuation the department denies the atrocities committed in Nazi Germany are both ridiculous and baseless”.
It also accused critics of distorting the text to “create controversy”.
The row reflects the controversial nature of the government’s policies, which Canberra has long defended as necessary to stop deaths at sea while securing the nation’s borders.
Opposition labour immigration spokesman Richard Marles had urged Dutton to formally withdraw the remarks and apologise, saying the second statement only compounded the problem.
“The reputation of the department is at stake, indeed the reputation of Australia is at stake,” said Marles, whose party supports the offshore detention regime.
But Dutton accused Marles of seeking to “join the rabid voices of twitter and sections of the media”. He called for an apology from his Labor counterpart for “impugning (the) integrity” of immigration officials.
The uproar came a day after two Iranian refugees held at a detention camp in Nauru in the Pacific before being resettled in Cambodia, returned home, sparking fresh criticism about a Aus$55 million (US$40 million) scheme between Canberra and the impoverished Southeast Asian nation.