Some Australian asylum seekers to be deported have cancer, terminal illnesses

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SYDNEY, Feb 8 (Reuters) - Some of the 267 asylum seekers Australia wants to deport to an offshore immigration center following 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 right to deport detained asylum seekers to the tiny South Pacific island of Nauru, about 3,000 km (1,800 miles) northeast of Australia.

The decision provoked criticism from the United Nations and sparked protest, with church leaders offering asylum seekers sanctuary.

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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, secretary of the department of immigration and border protection.

See reaction in Australia to the migrant crisis:

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Some Australian asylum seekers to be deported have cancer, terminal illnesses
MELBOURNE, AUSTRALIA - FEBRUARY 08: Thousands of Melbournians rallied on the steps of the state library in co-ordinated, Australia-wide rallies, protesting the High Courts decision regarding the 267 refugees facing deportation on February 8, 2016 in Melbourne, Australia. The High Court rejected a legal challenge to the federal government's offshore immigration detention regime on Wednesday, which means 267 people, including babies and children, face deportation from Australia to detention camps on Manus Island and Nauru within days. (Photo by Chris Hopkins/Getty Images)
MELBOURNE, AUSTRALIA - FEBRUARY 08: Thousands of Melbournians rallied on the steps of the state library in co-ordinated, Australia-wide rallies, protesting the High Courts decision regarding the 267 refugees facing deportation on February 8, 2016 in Melbourne, Australia. The High Court rejected a legal challenge to the federal government's offshore immigration detention regime on Wednesday, which means 267 people, including babies and children, face deportation from Australia to detention camps on Manus Island and Nauru within days. (Photo by Chris Hopkins/Getty Images)
MELBOURNE, AUSTRALIA - FEBRUARY 08: Thousands of Melbournians rallied on the steps of the state library in co-ordinated, Australia-wide rallies, protesting the High Courts decision regarding the 267 refugees facing deportation on February 8, 2016 in Melbourne, Australia. The High Court rejected a legal challenge to the federal government's offshore immigration detention regime on Wednesday, which means 267 people, including babies and children, face deportation from Australia to detention camps on Manus Island and Nauru within days. (Photo by Chris Hopkins/Getty Images)
MELBOURNE, AUSTRALIA - FEBRUARY 08: Thousands of Melbournians rallied on the steps of the state library in co-ordinated, Australia-wide rallies, protesting the High Courts decision regarding the 267 refugees facing deportation on February 8, 2016 in Melbourne, Australia. The High Court rejected a legal challenge to the federal government's offshore immigration detention regime on Wednesday, which means 267 people, including babies and children, face deportation from Australia to detention camps on Manus Island and Nauru within days. (Photo by Chris Hopkins/Getty Images)
MELBOURNE, AUSTRALIA - FEBRUARY 08: Emotions spilled over as thousands of Melbournians rallied on the steps of the state library in co-ordinated, Australia-wide rallies and chants of 'let them stay' rang out, protesting the High Courts decision regarding the 267 refugees facing deportation on February 8, 2016 in Melbourne, Australia. The High Court rejected a legal challenge to the federal government's offshore immigration detention regime on Wednesday, which means 267 people, including babies and children, face deportation from Australia to detention camps on Manus Island and Nauru within days. (Photo by Chris Hopkins/Getty Images)
MELBOURNE, AUSTRALIA - FEBRUARY 08: Emotions spilled over as thousands of Melbournians rallied on the steps of the state library in co-ordinated, Australia-wide rallies and chants of 'let them stay' rang out, protesting the High Courts decision regarding the 267 refugees facing deportation on February 8, 2016 in Melbourne, Australia. The High Court rejected a legal challenge to the federal government's offshore immigration detention regime on Wednesday, which means 267 people, including babies and children, face deportation from Australia to detention camps on Manus Island and Nauru within days. (Photo by Chris Hopkins/Getty Images)
Protestors against asylum seekers being deported, gather for a rally in Sydney, Australia, Thursday, Feb. 4, 2016. Australia was resisting mounting international pressure not to deport child asylum seekers, with a minister warning on Thursday that allowing them to stay could attract more refugees to come by boat. (AP Photo/Rob Griffith)
MELBOURNE, AUSTRALIA - FEBRUARY 08: Thousands of Melbournians rallied on the steps of the state library in co-ordinated, Australia-wide rallies, protesting the High Courts decision regarding the 267 refugees facing deportation on February 8, 2016 in Melbourne, Australia. The High Court rejected a legal challenge to the federal government's offshore immigration detention regime on Wednesday, which means 267 people, including babies and children, face deportation from Australia to detention camps on Manus Island and Nauru within days. (Photo by Chris Hopkins/Getty Images)
MELBOURNE, AUSTRALIA - FEBRUARY 4 : Protestors hold a banners outside the state library building during a rally organized after the Australian High Court had rejected a challenge to the government's right to hold asylum seekers on Manus Island and Nauru, in Melbourne, Australia on February 4, 2016. Over 260 people who had been sent to Australia for medical care are now likely to be sent back to Nauru. (Photo by Asanka Brendon Ratnayake/Anadolu Agency/Getty Images)
MELBOURNE, AUSTRALIA - FEBRUARY 4 : Protestors hold a banners outside the state library building during a rally organized after the Australian High Court had rejected a challenge to the government's right to hold asylum seekers on Manus Island and Nauru, in Melbourne, Australia on February 4, 2016. Over 260 people who had been sent to Australia for medical care are now likely to be sent back to Nauru. (Photo by Asanka Brendon Ratnayake/Anadolu Agency/Getty Images)
People hold placards at a protest outside an immigration office in Sydney on February 4, 2016, as Australian church leaders said they would offer sanctuary to asylum-seeker adults and children set to be deported to a remote Pacific camp after a court ruling, saying they were willing to defy the government's harsh immigration policy. Under Canberra's hardline immigration policy, asylum-seekers including children who try to reach Australia by boat are sent to offshore detention centres in Papua New Guinea and Nauru, where they are held indefinitely while refugee applications are processed. They are blocked from being resettled in Australia even if found to be genuine refugees. AFP PHOTO / WILLIAM WEST / AFP / WILLIAM WEST (Photo credit should read WILLIAM WEST/AFP/Getty Images)
In this photo taken on October 11, 2015 police officers stand next to a sign at a rally in support of refugees and asylum seekers in Sydney. Australian doctors on October 12, 2015 ramped up pressure on the government over its hardline policy on asylum-seekers, saying children they treat from immigration centres should not be returned to detention where conditions could harm them. AFP PHOTO / Peter PARKS (Photo credit should read PETER PARKS/AFP/Getty Images)
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"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 babies, had been brought 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 can never be resettled in Australia.

Both the ruling conservative Liberal Party of Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull and center-left Labor Party support the policy, which was introduced by former Labor Prime Minister Kevin Rudd.

Both sides argue that the policy of deterrence is necessary to stop asylum seekers dying at sea while attempting to make the sea crossing on often rickety boats used by people smugglers.

The numbers trying to reach Australia are small in comparison with the floods of asylum seekers in Europe, the issue is a perennial hot-button political issue both at home and abroad.

On Monday Australia announced the appointment of veteran politician Philip Ruddock as its first special envoy for human rights.

"Australia has a strong record of promoting and protecting human rights, at home and around the world," Foreign Minister Julie Bishop said in a statement.

"Mr Ruddock will be reflecting the government's commitment to further strengthening Australia's contribution to advancing human rights." (Reporting by Matt Siegel; Editing by Clarence Fernandez)

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