Australia has been told to end its 'dire' and 'indecent' offshore detention of asylum seekers by the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees.
In a statement, Filippo Grandi said Australia's policy of offshore processing in Papua New Guinea and Nauru was contrary to common decency and had caused extensive and avoidable suffering for far too long.
For four years, more than 2000 people have been detained in those countries after arriving in Australia by boat to seek asylum.
In that time, the policy is estimated to have cost about $AU5 billion but is heralded by the Australian government as a deterrent to people smugglers.
My Grandi said the offshore detainees were languishing in unacceptable circumstances in which many had suffered physical and psychological harm.
He said in light of their dire humanitarian situation, his commission (UNHCR) had agreed to help with the relocation of refugees to the United States following a bilateral agreement between Australia and the US.
Mr Grandi said he agreed to do so on the clear understanding that vulnerable refugees with close family ties in Australia would ultimately be allowed to settle there.
However, he said he had recently been informed by Australia that it would refuse to accept even those refugees.
"UNHCR has recently been told that they, along with the others on Nauru and Papua New Guinea, have been informed that their only option is to remain where they are or to be transferred to Cambodia or to the United States," said Mr Grandi.
"This means, for example, that some with serious medical conditions, or who have undergone traumatic experiences, including sexual violence, cannot receive the support of their close family members residing in Australia.
"To avoid prolonging their ordeal, UNHCR has no choice but to endorse the relocation of all refugees on Papua New Guinea and Nauru to the United States, even those with close family members in Australia."
Mr Grandi said there was no doubt people should be reunited with their families in Australia, which would be the "humane and reasonable thing to do."
But he said the Australian government's decision to deny them this possibility was contrary to the fundamental principles of family unity, refugee protection and common decency.
"UNHCR fully endorses the need to save lives at sea and to provide alternatives to dangerous journeys and exploitation by smugglers.
"But the practice of offshore processing has had a hugely detrimental impact. There is a fundamental contradiction in saving people at sea, only to mistreat and neglect them on land," said Mr Grandi.
"I urge Australia to bring an immediate end to the harmful practice of offshore processing, offer solutions to its victims, for whom it retains full responsibility, and work with us on future alternatives that save lives at sea and provide protection to people in need."
Approximately 2,500 refugees and asylum-seekers have been forcibly transferred by Australia to 'offshore processing' facilities in Papua New Guinea and Nauru since the introduction of the current policy in 2013.
Of these, some 1,100 remain in Nauru and 900 in Papua New Guinea.