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Prime Minister Tony Abbott says his government will not give in to "moral blackmail" following reported suicide attempts by asylum seekers on Christmas Island.
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'Moral blackmail' on Christmas Island?
Do suicide attempts by asylum seekers amount to moral blackmail?
Fairfax Media reports on Wednesday that a dozen mothers have tried to kill themselves on Christmas Island after deciding their children would have more chance of making it to Australia without them.
Mr Abbott said the reports of suicide attempts were "harrowing" but that the government would not change its policy of offshore processing and no permanent residency for asylum seekers who arrive by boat.
"No Australian government should be subjected to the spectacle of people saying 'unless you accept us, I am going to commit self harm','' Mr Abbott told Channel Nine on Wednesday.
''I don't believe any thinking Australian would want us to capitulate to moral blackmail.
''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.''
The mothers on Christmas Island reportedly became inconsolable when told this week that they would be sent to Nauru and Manus Island, saying they would rather die, lawyers told Fairfax Media.
''We are gravely concerned about the welfare of the families on Christmas Island,'' Jacob Varghese, a principal at Maurice Blackburn Lawyers representing asylum seekers, said.
''We have heard from our clients there that in the last day several women have attempted suicide or harmed themselves. They are in a state of utter despair. They are concerned about the health of their children.''
Asked about Mr Abbott's comments, Opposition Leader Bill Shorten said on Wednesday: "It is not good enough to wash your hands of the safety of human beings in the manner in which he is doing.
''I think that Tony Abbott needs to spell out what are the safeguards they're putting in place to ensure that people in our care are treated safely, with decency and some degree of humanity.''
Mr Abbott also refused to say where a group of 153 asylum seekers were being held by Australian authorities, or whether they will be returned to Sri Lanka.
In the High Court on Tuesday the government promised to give three days notice before trying to return the group.
During the hearing the government for the first time confirmed their existence, after a week of speculation about their fate.
The group, which includes children as young as two, was intercepted at sea en route to Australia but won't be processed under the Migration Act because they never entered territorial waters.
The asylum seekers are being held aboard a Customs vessel outside Australian territorial waters, but on Wednesday Mr Abbott refused to confirm their exact location.
''I won't talk about on-the-water operations. That's to give aid and comfort to people smugglers. That's not something that I'm going to do,'' he said.
He also would not say that the asylum seekers would not be returned to Sri Lanka.
''I will confirm today, as we always will, that we will operate in accordance with our legal obligation, and we will operate in accordance with safety at sea,'' he said.
Asked about the boat of 153 asylum seekers, Greens immigration spokeswoman Sarah Hanson-Young said: ''It is Tony Abbott's Tampa and together with the secrecy, you've got to wonder whether it's Scott Morrison's children overboard.''
Former prime minister John Howard on Wednesday defended the Abbott government's record on asylum seekers, saying it had exceeded expectations.
''I don't think the government could have handled the asylum seeker issue any better - I think it's handled it extremely well,'' he told ABC radio.
''This government has fulfilled to the letter the commitment it made to the Australian people in the area of asylum seeker policy and protecting our borders.''
Labor's immigration spokesman Richard Marles said the opposition took issue with the onboard screening process.
''We don't understand how you can assess people's individual cases when everyone is steaming towards Sri Lanka,'' he told ABC radio on Wednesday.
Liberal Democrat senator David Leyonhjelm is worried about the asylum seekers' fate.
''It's a bit sad, they’re between the devil and the deep blue sea,'' he told reporters in Canberra on Wednesday.
Independent senator Nick Xenophon said on Wednesday that he trusted the High Court to make a fair decision.
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