The UN refugee agency has said it is troubled by Australia’s agreement with Papua New Guinea (PNG), which would become the primary processing and resettlement country for asylum-seekers attempting to reach Australia by boat.
The UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) said in a written statement issued on Friday that there were significant shortcomings in the legal framework for receiving and processing asylum-seekers from Australia.
“With regard to the new measures, UNHCR is troubled by the current absence of adequate protection standards and safeguards for asylum seekers and refugees in Papua New Guinea,” the statement said.
“Australia’s Regional Resettlement Arrangement (RRA) with the Government of PNG raises serious, and so far unanswered, protection questions.”
The UNHCR’s concerns follow claims by a former senior official at one of Australia’s detention camps in Papua New Guinea that asylum seekers had been raped and tortured.
Speaking to Al Jazeera, Graeme McGregor, a refugee campaign coordinator for Amnesty International Australia, said that the allegations by Rod St George, the former head of occupational health and safety at the Manus Island processing centre should be fully investigated.
McGregor said that while he had not heard of those particular allegations, the conditions there were “squalid”.
Australia defends policy
The UNHCR echoed Amnesty International Australia’s concerns that the conditions at the processing centre were inappropriate for refugees.
“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,” the UN body said.
“These include a lack of national capacity and expertise in processing, and poor physical conditions within open-ended, mandatory and arbitrary detention settings.
“This can be harmful to the physical and psycho-social well-being of transferees, particularly families and children.”
Bob Carr, Australia’s foreign minister, defended the government’s new asylum-seeker policy on Friday.
“You’ve got to break this model of people-smuggling, otherwise it’ll occupy more and more of the immigration intake to Australia,” Carr said.
“We can’t privatise our immigration program to people-smugglers, we can’t allow that to happen.
“Now the UN has made some observations, I understand, but we believe as a proud party to the convention on refugees, that we cannot allow people smuggling to figure more and more, to become stronger and stronger.”
Australian Immigration Minister Tony Burke said during a visit to the Manus Island temporary facility on Thursday that that minimum welfare standards had been observed and Australia was pressing on with expanding the centre.
‘Returning home better option’
|Australian government video|
Earlier this week, the Australian immigration department issued a statement on its website, entitled “81 Iranians get the new message: ‘You will not settle in Australia’,” with an accompanying video and images of refugees with faces blurred, which McGregor described as “distasteful” and “unethical”.
The government said that people who arrived by boat at the Christmas Island detention centre, north of Australia, at the weekend were coming to the realisation their dangerous journey “will not win them a place in Australia”.
The video purports to show the moment the refugees were told of the new arrangement between Australia and PNG at North West Point Immigration Detention Centre. A woman can be seen with her head in her hands, apparently crying.
A still image of the woman and her fellow refugees is shown on the department’s website with the accompanying caption: “The group of Iranians contemplate their imminent transfer to PNG where they will be settled.”
Steven Karras, acting Immigration Department regional manager, said in the written statement, issued on Monday, that the new arrivals listened calmly to the message, which he believed had “probably sank in a bit.”
Karras said a number of the clients said if they had known the rules had changed, they would not have come to Australia “on a people-smuggler’s boat”.
“I’m sure they’re now thinking about whether it was wise to come in the first place,” Karras said.
“And I think in fact over the coming days …they will start to contemplate very seriously whether in fact returning home is a better option.”
The PNG opposition has launched legal action in an attempt to overturn the deal with Australia.