Commission ‘troubled’ by asylum seeker policy

National, Normal

The National, Monday July 29th, 2013

 THE United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees has issued a scathing assessment of Australia’s plans to send all asylum seekers who arrive by boat to Papua New Guinea.

Prime Minister Kevin Rudd and PNG Prime Minister Peter O’Neill announced the deal 10 days ago, under which PNG would process asylum seekers who come to Australia and resettle those found to be refugees.

While PNG’s Cabinet was told that the Manus Island detention centre could eventually house 3,000 asylum seekers, Rudd stressed it would be open-ended.

A week after the announcement, the UNHCR issued a statement saying it was “troubled” by the current arrangements on Manus Island and Labor’s proposal raised “very significant policy, legal and operational challenges”.

“UNHCR is troubled by the current absence of adequate protection standards and safeguards for asylum seekers and refugees in Papua New Guinea,” the agency said.  

“Australia’s regional resettlement arrangement (RRA) with the Government of PNG raises serious, and so far unanswered, protection questions.

“UNHCR’s assessment, based on recent visits to PNG, is that there are currently significant shortcomings in the legal framework for receiving and processing asylum-seekers from Australia. These include a lack of national capacity and expertise in processing, and poor physical conditions within open-ended detention settings.

“While UNHCR understands that a number of these issues are being addressed, it is concerned at the prospect of further transfers taking place under the new RRA in the absence of appropriate protection guarantees and to what will remain temporary facilities on Manus Island for the foreseeable future.”’

The agency said asylum seekers sent to PNG would face “formidable challenges” integrating with PNG life.

“From UNHCR’s firsthand experience in supporting Melanesian and non-Melanesian refugees for nearly 30 years, it is clear that sustainable integration of non-Melanesian refugees in the socio-economic and cultural life of PNG will raise formidable challenges and protection questions.”

It said it shared the government’s concerns about the risks to life associated with dangerous sea journeys.

“As a principle, UNHCR always advocates for countries for protection.”