PM: We won't give in to 'moral blackmail' over suicide attempts

Prime Minister Tony Abbott says his government will not give in to "moral blackmail" following reported suicide attempts by asylum seekers on Christmas Island.

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.

Asylum seekers mothers held on Christmas Island has attempted suicide in bid to help their children be settled in Australia. Photo: Wolter Peeters

Asylum seekers mothers held on Christmas Island has attempted suicide in bid to help their children be settled in Australia. Photo: Wolter Peeters

''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.''

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.

Labor's immigration spokesman Richard Marles said the opposition also 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.

Labor senator Sam Dastyari called for compassion and transparency.

''The Australian public should be able to rely on their government to tell them what's happening. We shouldn't have to solely rely on the judicial system to find out what's going on,'' he told reporters on Wednesday.

smh.com.au with AAP

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