Sydney, March 15, 2018 (AFP) - - Australia's conservative government is considering fast-tracking visas for white South African farmers so they can flee their "horrific circumstances" for a "civilised country".
The offer was swiftly rebuffed by South Africa, with a government spokesman saying that no section of the country's population was in any danger.
Australia's Home Affairs Minister Peter Dutton, who oversees immigration and has drawn international criticism for heading a tough crackdown on asylum-seekers from Asia and the Middle East, said the South Africans deserve "special attention" for acceptance on refugee or humanitarian grounds.
He cited reports of land seizures and violence targeting the white farmers.
"If you look at the footage, you hear the stories and you read the accounts, it's a horrific circumstance that they face," Dutton told Sydney's Daily Telegraph late Wednesday.
"I've asked my department to look at options and ways in which we can provide some assistance because I do think on the information I've seen people do need help, and they need help from a civilised country like ours."
But South African government spokesman Ndivhuwo Mabaya told the BBC that there was "no need for anyone to be scared or to fear anything".
"The land redistribution programme will be done according to the law," he said, adding: "We remain a united nation here in South Africa - both black and white."
Dutton's comments come just months after asylum-seekers and refugees held by Australia in a remote Pacific camp were awarded Aus$70 million ($56 million) for being illegally detained and treated negligently in the country's largest human rights class action settlement.
Canberra, which denied liability, sends asylum-seekers who try to reach Australia by boat, rather than through official channels, to facilities on Nauru in the Pacific and Papua New Guinea's Manus Island.
- Special attention -
Dutton said that white South African farmers work hard and "I think these people deserve special attention and we're applying that special attention now".
He indicated that those wanting to leave may be considered under the "in-country persecution" visa category, or through a refugee-humanitarian program.
Normally South Africans have to apply under other categories, including as a skilled worker or through family connections. Nearly 200,000 South Africans already live in Australia.
Late last year, thousands of white farmers blocked roads in South Africa to protest against what they said was an explosion of violence against their communities in rural areas.
Campaign group AfriForum, which advocates for its largely white membership, many of whom speak Afrikaans, cited dozens of murders.
Another Australian cabinet minister, Steve Ciobo, agreed the farmers' situation was "cause for concern".
"Let's be frank, if we see in this case -- people who are being thrown off their land, being persecuted, I've read of people being shot, rapes, all sorts of different things -- then I do believe that there's a role to be played," he told broadcaster ABC.
South African President Cyril Ramaphosa, who came to power last month, has vowed to "escalate the pace" of redistributing land from wealthy whites to poorer blacks.
Land ownership is a sensitive subject in South Africa, 24 years after the end of apartheid rule.
White people still own around 72 percent of individually-owned farms, with the black majority holding just four percent, according to an audit cited by Ramaphosa this week.
The country's ruling ANC party has backed expropriation of land without compensation.
AfriForum deputy chief executive Alana Bailey said on the group's website that Dutton's remarks should serve as a wake-up call for the South African government.
"It must serve as a warning that South Africa runs the risk to lose even more productive, loyal citizens should their concerns about issues such as property rights not be listened to in earnest," Bailey said.
Dutton suggested an announcement could be made soon.
"We're just looking at the moment at what might be feasible and hopefully we'll make an announcement in due course," he said.