The Coalition and Greens have rebuked the home affairs minister, Clare O’Neil, for claiming that letters to asylum seekers telling them to get out of Australia were sent “accidentally”.
According to the ABC, which first revealed the correspondence sent in September and October to at least 490 people, O’Neil wrote to a constituent that the letters were sent “in error” – a claim disputed by her own department.
The shadow immigration minister, Dan Tehan, on Thursday accused O’Neil of “throwing her department under the bus”, while Greens immigration spokesman Nick McKim said the letters were “disgraceful” and indicated mistreatment of asylum seekers appears to be continuing under Labor.
The letters reportedly told asylum seekers that “settlement in Australia is not an option for you” and “you are expected to progress other migration options”.
Recipients were given a three-week deadline to “advise the department of your third country resettlement plan”.
After a complaint from a constituent, O’Neil reportedly replied that the letter “was not sent with my authority or knowledge”.
“It was sent out in error by the Home Affairs Department,” O’Neil’s statement reportedly said.
“I had not seen the letter before it was accidentally sent out, and I hadn’t asked for it to be sent out.
“In fact, I do not think the letter was appropriate or constructive in any way, in particular because this matter involves vulnerable people.
“I have asked the department to refrain from sending out letters of this nature, and to change its communications strategy with regard to this issue.”
But the department responded that the letter “was not sent in error and was part of the department’s approach to identifying transitory persons needing additional support to engage with third country migration options”.
It was sent to “individuals temporarily in Australia who do not currently have a third country migration pathway, have withdrawn from a resettlement process or whom the department did not have details of a resettlement pathway”, according to a spokesperson.
On Thursday the acting prime minister, Richard Marles, told reporters that O’Neil had “made it clear that these letters were inappropriately sent, and that it won’t happen again”.
McKim told Guardian Australia the letters were “disgraceful and sadly typical of a decade of mistreatment of people seeking asylum under both Labor and Liberal governments”.
“The minister and the department can try to pin the blame on each other all they like but the buck stops with the minister. The harm caused by these letters rests squarely on her shoulders.
“But more importantly, the letters highlight that refugees and people seeking asylum who were locked up in offshore detention have been deprived a permanent home.
“Ten years is long enough. They must be given permanent visas in Australia and put on the pathway to citizenship.”
Tehan said O’Neil “says one thing and her department says the complete opposite”.
“The minister needs to be transparent and honest: she should provide a full explanation about what happened because, ultimately, as minister she is responsible and should be embarrassed. The buck stops with her.”
Labor and the Coalition have both maintained that asylum seekers who arrived by boat after July 2013 won’t be permanently settled in Australia.