Philippines says has 'no capacity' to resettle asylum seekers

Residents displaced by fighting cross a makeshift foot bridge in Mamasapano, Maguindanao in southern Philippines March 31, 2015. REUTERS/Ezra Acayan

MANILA (Reuters) - President Benigno Aquino on Tuesday said the Philippines had "no capacity" to permanently relocate asylum seekers now being held in Australian detention camps on remote, impoverished South Pacific islands.

Hundreds of boat people seeking asylum in Australia have been placed in detention camps on Manus island in Papua New Guinea and on the tiny island of Nauru.

"We would want to assist but there are limitations as to how far we can assist," Aquino told reporters in Manila, saying his government was "challenged to meet the needs of its own people right now".

Canberra and Manila have held talks about resettling some of the refugees in the Philippines after a similar deal with Cambodia struggled to get off the ground.

Human rights groups criticised the Aquino government for entering into talks with Australia when thousands of Filipinos displaced by Typhoon Haiyan in 2013 were still without homes.

"And this proposed agreement is not one of a transitory nature, it's not one of just being a transit point but actually relocating these people here," Aquino said. "And we are not in a capacity at this point of time to afford permanent residency to these people."

Australia had offered $150 million spread over five years in exchange for permanent relocation of some refugees. A similar deal was struck with Cambodia, but only four asylum seekers were resettled before the deal was stopped.

Since 2012, people on boats attempting to reach Australia have been turned back or taken to camps in Nauru, where there have been reports of assaults and systemic child abuse, or Papua New Guinea, where Canberra has set up processing centres.

From the late 1970s until late 1980s, the Philippines helped provide transit to thousands of Vietnamese, Laotians and Cambodians who escaped by boat to seek permanent homes in the United States and elsewhere in the West.

(Reporting by Manuel Mogato; Editing by Nick Macfie)

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