Australian PM Says He Won't Bow to "Moral Blackmail" After Asylum Seeker Suicide Attempts

Tony Abbott in Ottawa
Australian Prime Minister Tony Abbott speaks to reporters at the Canadian War Museum in Ottawa, June 8, 2014 Patrick Doyle/Reuters

SYDNEY (Reuters) - Australian Prime Minister Tony Abbott on Wednesday vowed not to bow to "moral blackmail" following reports of suicide bids by female asylum seekers at a detention center on Christmas Island.

Opposition Greens lawmaker Sarah Hanson-Young, whose party is one of the strongest critics of the government's "Operation Sovereign Borders" immigration policy, said she had spoken to people inside the center who reported that almost ten mothers were on suicide watch this week.

Fairfax media reported the women had tried to kill themselves after deciding their children would have a better chance of making it to Australia without them.

Abbott said he had not seen the reports but called them "harrowing", and added that the government would not back down from its tough asylum policy.

"I don't believe any thinking Australian would want us to capitulate to moral blackmail," Abbott told the Channel 9 television network.

"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."

Government minister Eric Abetz later told parliament there had been a small number of "minor self-harm incidents" at the facility on Australia's Indian Ocean territory of Christmas Island but declined to provide any further detail, citing the detainees' rights to privacy.

"Those involved are receiving proper and appropriate medical and other support," Abetz said. A spokesman for Immigration Minister Scott Morrison said reports of multiple suicide attempts were not correct, but declined further comment, citing both privacy and concerns about encouraging such behavior.

"It would be highly irresponsible and dangerous to allow government policy to be determined on the basis of such threats," he said.

Australia's asylum seeker policies face growing international scrutiny.

A group of 153 Sri Lankan asylum seekers remain stranded in legal limbo on the high seas as Australia's High Court considers the legality of the interception of their boat.

Another 41 asylum seekers picked up from a separate boat were handed over by Australia to Sri Lanka in a secret operation over the weekend.

The government has consistently said its operations do not breach international law, despite concern expressed by the United Nations refugee agency.