UNHCR calls for a more humane asylum seeker policy from Australia
UNHCR calls for immediate changes in the Australian run camps for asylum seekers on Nauru and PNG's Manus Island.
The United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees says Australian-run asylum seeker camps on Nauru and Manus Island are holding people in arbitrary detention and do not meet international standards of treatment.
It says the treatment the asylum seekers receive is not fair, safe or humane.
Hundreds of refugees are being held in the camps but little is happening in terms of the process to determine whether they are genuine refugees.
The UNHCR, which has now visited the camps on three occasions, has called on all three countries involved to act on the recommendations in their reports.
The Pacific's regional representative for the UNHCR, Richard Towle, told Don Wiseman that there are some deeply troubling shortcomings at each of the camps.
RICHARD TOWLE: Our concerns, and they're not new ones because they remain unresolved, are probably in four groups. One is the detention settings. This is a mandatory detention environment in both places, which in our assessment is arbitrary under international law. In other words, there's no reasonable opportunity to have the detention challenged in an appropriate way. In those detention settings there are very harsh conditions for people affected. There are a lot of vulnerable people, people carrying the symptoms and signs of trauma from their journeys towards Australia and Nauru and Papua New Guinea. And on Nauru itself there are families and a lot of young children also held in these detention settings. So we're very concerned about the harsh physical conditions that people face. The slowness of the processing that you've already referred to in one case has been finally referred to, even though the procedures have been up and running since September of last year. And probably of concern greatest to us is there's really no clarity about what happens to refugees at the end of the process on Nauru. It's really not likely at all possible for refugeees to remain there in the short term, and yet there is no clearly articulated plan as to what happens to people who deserve and are required to have international protection, so if you look at those measures and problems together it's a very serious suite of concerns.
DON WISEMAN: Both countries, along with Australia, are claiming that what they're doing is legal, but it's clearly not compatible with the way the UNHCR looks at things. You are calling on them to develop more clear laws to cover off a whole lot of these issues.
RT: We think in these remote places that a transparent legal framework is absolutely essential. If you're going to be depriving what are essentially innocent people seeking protection of their liberty, it's got to be very clear as to the legal basis for that and what procedures are going to be brought to them, what their rights and entitlements are. And we're concerned that in Papua New Guinea particularly there isn't an independent oversight mechanism at all in place to shed light on how these arrangements are being implemented. There is an ad hoc body that exists in Nauru, which does some very good work, but that needs to be institutionalised in Nauru and that's one of our main recommendations. In fact, the procedures would benefit enormously and a clearer framework of what is actually happening.
DW: People have now been in the camp on Nauru, which was the first of them to be opened, since September of last year. No progress whatsoever, really, in terms of this determination of refugee status. That's peculiar, isn't it?
RT: The reality is that there have been a lot of people transferred to Nauru and Papua New Guinea. But all of those people, bar a small number, have actually been returned to Australia for processing. There is a new cut-off date that was introduced in July of this year, so only those people who have arrived after 19 July will be processed in Nauru and Papua New Guinea. All others have been returned to Australia. So there's a bit of a revolving door in the way that some of these transfers have taken place. And that's created a high degree of confusion amongst people as to what the actual procedures are that will apply to them.
DW: On Nauru, I know that they're sending some kids to school, but you're very concerned that there are children on the island at all. Yet most of the people who are in Nauru they're all family groups, aren't they, almost all family groups?
RT: They're almost all family groups, although one or two unaccompanied children have been inadvertently sent out there because of perhaps a lack of rigour in the assessment process as to vulnerabilities. And those children have been returned, obviously, to Australia. There are, to our regret, discussions about sending unaccompanied children out to Nauru and indeed perhaps further down the line to PNG. These are no places for children and if these are detention environments then clearly children and families should not be held in these kind of environments at all, particularly without any opportunity to have the detention challenged. And the lack of clarity and certainty of processing and the open-ended and indeterminate nature of prolonged stay there, if not addressed very quickly, is likely to lead to some quite serious psycho-social and physical harm to people affected. That's probably the issue that underpins our concerns most greatly.
DW: Should these camps be on either of these islands?
RT: Our positions on these arrangements is it's primarily the responsibility of the transfering state. That is Australia, if it wants to relieve itself of responsibility for the care of support of people, it has to be very clear that those arrangements are meeting international standards in the transfered places. To date, we're not at all satisfied those international standards are met, so the responsibility of all the countries involved remains. There's clearly a lot of effort going into improving the conditions, but as the report has set out quite clearly a great deal more needs to be done to improve the situation.
DW: It comes back to this central question of these people having escaped harsh environments. Most of them believe that they're refugees, that they qualify for refugee status, I guess, and most of them will be identified as refugees, given what's happened in the past, but there doesn't seem to be a great deal of compassion, shall we say, coming out of Australia.
RT: It's very cleaer that over the last 12 months the policies and practices from Australia are based on deterrants. And it's equally clear that if the focus remains almost exclusively on deterrants this will have harmful and at times punishing consequences for people affected. Ordinary families, children and vulnerable groups will be victimised doubly if the practices and policies remain solely based on deterrants. That's why we think it's very important now to recalibrate and reintroduce a more humanitarian and humane set of approaches to what's in place in both places, and indeed in Australia.
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