Some of the 267 asylum seekers Australia wants to deport to an offshore immigration center after a court ruling are suffering from cancer and other terminal illnesses, a senior government official said on Monday.
Australia's High Court last week upheld the government's decision to deport detained asylum seekers to the tiny South Pacific island of Nauru, about 1,800 miles northeast of Australia.
The decision provoked criticism from the United Nations and sparked protest, with church leaders offering asylum seekers sanctuary.
The center has been widely criticized for harsh conditions and reports of systemic child abuse and sexual assault.
Some deportations could begin within days, but others would have to be dealt with in a staged fashion because of the illnesses, said Michael Pezzullo, the secretary of the Department of Immigration and Border Protection.
"In some cases, we're talking about cancer. We're talking about all sorts of long-run illnesses," he told a parliamentary hearing. "Regrettably in some cases, for reasons to do with very long-term and, indeed, potentially terminal illnesses, some folks, I suspect, will be here for quite a while."
The refugees, including 37 infants, were taken to Australia from Nauru for medical treatment.
Under Australia's controversial immigration policy, asylum seekers trying to reach the country by boat are intercepted and sent to camps on Nauru or on Manus Island in Papua New Guinea. They are not allowed to be resettled in Australia.
Both the ruling conservative Liberal Party of Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull and the center-left Labor Party support the policy, which was introduced by Labor's then–Prime Minister Kevin Ruddy.
The policy's supporters argue that the policy of deterrence is necessary to stop asylum seekers from dying at sea while attempting to make the sea crossing, often on rickety boats used by people smugglers.
Although the numbers trying to reach Australia are small in comparison with the flood of asylum seekers in Europe, the issue is a perennial hot-button political issue at home and abroad.