UN agency urges Australia to look for alternatives to detaining asylum-seekers

A boat carrying Sri Lankan asylum-seekers in Indonesian waters.

20 April 2010 – The United Nations refugee agency has urged Australia to look for alternatives to detaining asylum-seekers arriving by boat who pose no health or security risk to the public, after the Government announced it will reopen a remote facility to house them.

Last week the Government said it would temporarily freeze asylum applications from Afghans and Sri Lankans arriving by boat, and that it would reopen the remote Curtin Air Base in the north-west to house them.

More than 1,800 asylum-seekers have arrived in Australia by boat since the beginning of the year, mostly from Sri Lanka and Afghanistan.

While the UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) said it acknowledging the operational constraints over the capacity of the detention centre on Christmas Island, the choice of isolated Curtin Air Force Base as a detention centre would make the provision of essential social services very challenging.

“The combination of mandatory detention, suspension of asylum claims and the geographical isolation of detention facilities such as Curtin Air Force Base in Western Australia – all without any effective judicial oversight – is a deeply troubling set of factors,” UNHCR Regional Representative Richard Towle said in a statement released yesterday in Canberra.

Experience had shown that “these measures are likely to have a negative impact on the health and well-being of people affected by the latest announcements, particularly those already suffering from torture or trauma before arriving in this country,” the statement noted.

At the same time, UNHCR welcomed the decision to move unaccompanied minors to community facilities in the southern city of Port Augusta as preferable to detention on Christmas Island.

“The detention of children is inappropriate and we hope that Port Augusta will be an open and community-based facility where essential services are available to protect the best interests of children accommodated there,” said Mr. Towle.

UNHCR plans to continue discussions with the Government on how to minimize the impact of its suspension of asylum claims and continued mandatory detention arrangements on the health and welfare of asylum-seekers in Australia.


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