UN refugee agency hails closure of Australia’s Pacific offshore detention centre

8 February 2008 – The United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) has welcomed the closure of an offshore detention centre on the tiny island nation of Nauru and the transfer of the remaining refugees to Australia, marking the end of the latter’s so-called “Pacific Solution” for asylum-seekers.

The 21 Sri Lankan refugees that left Nauru today bound for Brisbane were among 83 asylum-seekers intercepted on their way to Australia in February 2007. They were taken first to the Australian territory of Christmas Island and then transferred to Nauru in March to have their refugee claims assessed. All were determined to be refugees.

“Today’s closure of the centre on Nauru signals the end of a difficult chapter in Australia’s treatment of refugees and asylum-seekers,” UNHCR spokesperson Jennifer Pagonis told reporters in Geneva, lauding the decision by the new Government.

The agency had strong concerns about the policy, which diverted more than 1,600 asylum-seekers to Nauru or Papua New Guinea, denying them access to Australian territory to lodge asylum claims.

“Many bona fide refugees caught by the policy spent long periods of isolation, mental hardship and uncertainty – and prolonged separation from their families,” noted Ms. Pagonis.

The policy was instituted in 2001 after the Norwegian vessel, the MV Tampa, was refused permission to allow 433 mainly Afghan asylum-seekers it had rescued at sea to diembark. Those on board were eventually transferred to a new offshore processing centre on Nauru, after New Zealand had accepted 131 of them as refugees directly from the boat.

Ms. Pagonis said that any continuation of offshore processing on the Australian territory of Christmas Island must reflect the letter and the spirit of the 1951 Refugee Convention.

“We hope that asylum procedures on Christmas Island will mirror those that apply to people who have gained access to Australia’s onshore protection system,” she stated.

This includes appropriate reception arrangements that avoid detention if possible, refugee status determination that includes independent appeal rights and timely solutions in Australia for those found to be refugees.

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