Australian senator sorry for 'flea' comment in asylum debate

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Australia tough policy on asylum seekers has been criticised by rights groups

An Australian politician has apologised for appearing to refer to asylum seekers as "fleas".

David Fawcett, a government senator, made the comment during a parliamentary hearing on Monday.

In a debate about asylum seeker boat arrivals, Mr Fawcett accused the opposition Labor Party of "[bringing] the fleas in the first place".

He later apologised for his "poor choice of words", claiming they were not directed at asylum seekers.

"I have just been on the phone to Mr Phil Glendenning, the president of Refugee Council of Australia," Mr Fawcett told a late senate session.

"He has outlined how the words I spoke earlier today have been taken, and the deep hurt that this has caused across the network of communities that his council represents... consequently I sincerely apologise."

Australia has a tough and controversial policy of holding asylum seekers who arrive by boat in offshore detention centres on the Pacific nations of Nauru and Papua New Guinea.

Context defence

Mr Fawcett made the remark as he criticised Labor for highlighting cost blowouts in the Department of Immigration and Border Control.

"I just do question the ethics of nitpicking when your particular group perhaps brought the fleas in the first place," he said.

The comment was met with a "hear hear" by one person present, while fellow government Senator Ian MacDonald said "nicely put".

Mr Fawcett later claimed he had been misconstrued. He said the comment was meant as a figure of speech to criticise Labor MPs for "pursuing very small" details on asylum seeker policies "during a period of great activity and stress" for the department.

Labor immigration spokesman Shayne Neumann said it was "beyond belief" that a "government senator would ever refer to vulnerable people seeking asylum as fleas, and even worse, to have other coalition senators laugh, cheer and eagerly agree".

Australia's offshore detention policy is supported by the government and Labor. It is intended as a deterrent, but critics say it harms asylum seekers.

Earlier this month, a policy to resettle up to 1,250 refugees in the United States was plunged into uncertainty following a tense phone call between US President Donald Trump and Australian Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull.