Australia-Papua New Guinea asylum accord raises serious protection issues – UN agency

Villawood Immigration Detention Centre outside Sydney, Australia, which houses asylum-seekers. Photo: IRIN

26 July 2013 – Following a review of a new Australian asylum agreement, the United Nations refugee agency today said that it was “troubled” by a lack of protection standards and safeguards in the policy, under which Australia will move asylum-seekers to Papua New Guinea (PNG).

“We recognize that these measures take place against a backdrop of rising arrivals by people taking exploitative, dangerous sea journeys – including disturbing numbers of families, unaccompanied children and other vulnerable individuals,” UN Refugee Agency (UNHCR) spokesperson Melissa Fleming told journalists in Geneva.

She added that while UNHCR shared the Australian Government’s concern at the risks of life associated with these journeys and the country’s commitment to addressing the complex challenges, “Australia's Regional Resettlement Arrangement (RRA) with the Government of PNG raises serious, and so far unanswered, protection questions.”

Under the agreement announced on 19 July, arrivals to Australia by boat will be sent to a refugee-processing centre in Papua New Guinea where they will be resettled, if found to be entitled to refugee status under the United Nations convention on refugees, without any prospect of resettlement in Australia.

Recent visits to PNG found “significant shortcomings” in the current legal framework for receiving and processing asylum-seekers from Australia, the agency said.

According to the spokesperson, 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,” noted Ms. Fleming.

She added that the UN agency realizes that a number of these issues are being addressed, but is concerned at the prospect of further transfers taking place under the new regional resettlement arrangement in the absence of appropriate protection guarantees and to what will remain temporary facilities on Manus Island for the foreseeable future.

“UNHCR considers that, in the context of transfer arrangements, Australia maintains a shared responsibility with PNG to ensure appropriate legal standards. These need to include access to sustainable durable solutions in Australia itself,” Ms. Fleming said.

“As a principle, UNHCR always advocates for countries to grant protection within their own territory, regardless of how they have arrived,” she added.


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