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September 22, 2017

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Australia disputes asylum-seeker claims

SYDNEY -- Australia's Immigration Minister Scott Morrison Sunday disputed claims of a cover-up of mental health problems at offshore asylum-seeker camps, saying there were "always two sets of versions of what has occurred."

A leading psychiatrist alleged Thursday at a national inquiry into the mandatory detention of children seeking asylum that the immigration department had "asked us to withdraw" figures showing the extent of mental health issues.

Morrison said it was important for people not to "leap ahead and make a whole bunch of conclusions" as the inquiry, held by the Australian Human Rights Commission, was still under way.

"I mean, in these meetings there is always two sets of versions of what has occurred," the minister told the Australian Broadcasting Corporation.

"What they're working through is a process to get the best possible reporting of mental health in these facilities."

When questioned about the cover-up claim, Morrison said he had spoken to Immigration Department Secretary Martin Bowles about it and Bowles had written to Australian Human Rights Commissioner Gillian Triggs "and outlined what is actually occurring." He did not specify any details of what was said.

Morrison defended the detention of children even as officials said Saturday that 157 asylum-seekers, including 50 minors, were sent to the Pacific island of Nauru after rejecting a return to India.

The group, thought to be mostly ethnic Tamils from Sri Lanka, was held at sea on a Customs ship for weeks, after they were intercepted by Australian authorities following their departure from the Indian port of Pondicherry in June.

Morrison said he would not make an exception for the 50 children, despite the concerns expressed by experts about mental health conditions at the camps, as "offshore processing is a universal policy."

"When you create exceptions to that ... you create incentives for children to get on boats," he said.

"I don't want to see any children in detention and since we came to government we've reduced the number of children in detention both offshore and onshore by 35 percent.

"It is my job to get them all out as soon as I possibly can."

Morrison last week also questioned claims by Triggs that children in detention were self-harming, biting themselves, banging into furniture, and swallowing poisons, saying the allegations were "quite sensational."

Any boatpeople 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 camps in the Pacific for processing or resettlement.

Before the latest transfer, the inquiry heard that 659 children were in immigration detention.

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