Men’s magazine Zoo Weekly has dumped its controversial search for “Australia’s hottest asylum seeker” and agreed to publish an apology in the face of public outrage.

A petition calling for Zoo to apologise has attracted over 5000 signatures since a Wednesday article by Crikey brought the stunt to national attention.

The magazine also received heavy criticism from angry Facebook and Twitter users.

Zoo editor Tim Keen today rang Matt Darvas, the Newcastle-based refugee advocate who launched the petition, to personally apologise. Keen said that the apology, to be published in this week’s issue of the magazine, will be made to asylum seekers, their families and Greens senator Sarah Hanson-Young, whose image was photoshopped onto a bikini-clad model on the mag’s website.

Zoo is happy to print an apology to those readers who were offended by our take on a very serious topic and to acknowledge that for asylum seekers and refugees, and their families and supporters, it’s a subject too important for jokes,” Keen wrote in an email.

Keen said it was not his intention to dehumanise or sexualise vulnerable people.

Darvas said: “While I’m delighted that they had halted the competition and apologised, I’m still angry and disappointed that it happened in the first place.

“For Zoo to trivialise and exploit the incredibly traumatic experiences of refugees was utterly appalling.”

Zoo‘s article, published in the wake of asylum seeker drownings, asked: “Are you a refugee not even the immigration minister could refuse? Then we want to see you! We’re looking for Oz’s hottest asylum seeker, so if you’ve swapped persecution for sexiness, we want to shoot you (with a camera — relax!)”

The magazine also offered to house a boatload of asylum seekers if Sarah Hanson-Young agreed to pose for a “tasteful” lingerie shoot.