Australia evacuates 11 child refugees as minority govt seeks support

By Colin Packham

By Colin Packham

SYDNEY (Reuters) - Australia evacuated 11 child migrants on Monday from a remote Pacific detention centre for medical treatment in the country, one of the largest groups to be transferred since offshore detentions began in 2013.

Michael Pezzullo, Secretary of the Department of Home Affairs, told lawmakers at a hearing that the 11 children were resettled from the Pacific island of Nauru and all would likely remain in Australia.

The United Nations and rights groups have urged Australia to evacuate detainees from the Pacific islands of Nauru and Papua New Guinea, where more than 1,400 people are being held and some children suffer from worsening mental health.

More than 50 children and 600 adults remain at the detention centre on Nauru.

Australia had steadfastly refused to allow any refugees arriving by boat to enter the country. But two independent lawmakers said on Monday their support for Prime Minister Scott Morrison's shaky government was tied to the fate of the child detainees on Nauru.

Morrison is poised to lose his one-seat parliamentary majority after voters in Sydney's Wentworth by-election on Saturday shunned the ruling Liberal Party amid anger at the recent ousting of former prime minister Malcolm Turnbull.

Although counting continues, Morrison is likely to have to rely on the support of five independents to prevent a no confidence motion that could trigger an election. The next poll is due by May 2019.

Kerryn Phelps, who is on course to win in Wentworth, said Morrison should immediately relocate child refugees from Nauru.

"The first order of business is to get kids off Nauru," Phelps told Sky News Australia, echoing a similar demand from another independent lawmaker, Cathy McGowan.

The resettlement announcement came as Morrison sought a meeting with the five independents. Two have already ruled out supporting Morrison, and a third, Bob Katter, has made demands regarding loans for drought-affected farmers and other agriculture related policies.

McGowan stopped short of offering her support to the government, saying she needed to hear from Morrison on the refugee issue.

"Ideally, I'd like the government to go full term, but we, the crossbenchers, will have those discussions today with the prime minister, the treasurer and various other ministers," she told the Australian Broadcasting Corporation.

Analysts said the Wentworth result could accelerate the timetable for the next general election.

Australia's Electoral Commission on Monday said Phelps was leading Morrison's Liberal candidate by nearly 1,700 votes, with 3000 postal votes yet to be counted.

The ballot was propelled into international prominence after Morrison sought to garner support from Jewish voters, who account for 13 percent of Wentworth's electorate, by suggesting Australia could recognise Jerusalem as Israel's capital and move its embassy there from Tel Aviv.

(Reporting by Colin Packham; Editing by Daniel Wallis and Darren Schuettler)