Australia should not coerce vulnerable people to return to harm

Statement by United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees Regional Representation in Canberra

The Australian Government’s announced change in legal status and withdrawal of support to refugees and asylum-seekers is a blatant attempt to coerce the most vulnerable to return to Papua New Guinea, Nauru, or their countries of origin. Removing accommodation and financial support leaves people at serious risk of destitution in Australia. Equally, the withdrawal of access to basic services such as trauma and torture counselling will exacerbate their already precarious situation.

Approximately 400 refugees and asylum-seekers remain in community detention in Australia, having been transferred from Papua New Guinea and Nauru due to both serious medical and protection concerns. The Government of Australia has implicitly recognized through these transfers that the conditions there are unacceptable.

The Government has not granted these refugees and asylum-seekers the right to work. Most were brought to Australia with acute medical needs. To claim abruptly that these same people should immediately support themselves financially is unfair and unreasonable.

Papua New Guinea and Nauru remain unsuitable as places of settlement for refugees and asylum-seekers sent there by Australia. UNHCR has consistently reported the impossibility of local integration on even a temporary basis for the vast majority of refugees and asylum-seekers, along with concerns for their physical security. Medical experts have repeatedly confirmed the urgent need for medical and psychological services which are unavailable in Papua New Guinea and Nauru.

The majority of asylum-seekers transferred from Papua New Guinea and Nauru to Australia have still not had their claims for international protection determined after more than four years. Until their asylum claims are finalized, they should not be returned to their countries of origin. Going home is not an option for those who have a fear of serious harm and persecution.

As a signatory to the 1951 Refugee Convention, Australia remains responsible for those who have sought its protection. This includes a duty to consider claims for international protection fairly and efficiently, and to provide refugees and asylum-seekers with a minimum standard of living which is humane and dignified.

Those who have suffered most under inhumane conditions in Papua New Guinea and Nauru need care and compassion. Refugees and asylum-seekers who have been transferred to Australia, like all refugees and asylum-seekers, should be provided with adequate support and a much-needed long term solution outside of Papua New Guinea and Nauru.

Background

Since the adoption of Australia’s current “offshore processing” arrangements to forcibly transfer refugees and asylum-seekers to Nauru and Papua New Guinea, individuals have been returned to Australia due to serious medical conditions that are unable to be treated in those countries, as well as protection concerns. At present, approximately 400 individuals are in community detention, having been re-transferred to Australia from Papua New Guinea and Nauru. As of 29 August 2017, approximately 70 of these highly vulnerable people have been informed by the Department of Immigration and Border Protection that they will be issued with a new “Final Departure Bridging Visa E.”

Under the six-month term of this visa, asylum-seekers and refugees will be permitted to work. Those over 18 years of age are not permitted to study or undertake training courses. Further, financial payments of AUD 200 per fortnight will immediately cease upon issuance of this visa, and government-supported housing will be withdrawn three weeks after. Although Medicare (Government-funded health care) will be provided, access to other services, notably Government-funded torture trauma services, will cease. Initially, the visa has been issued to adult asylum-seekers and refugees currently in community detention, who are not accompanied by family. The group of people potentially affected includes 400 people, including families and over 100 children. A majority of affected refugees and asylum-seekers are reported to be Iranian, Syrian, Afghan, Sri Lankan and stateless people.

Long-term solutions are needed for all people transferred by Australia to Papua New Guinea and Nauru since 2013. For those refugees who wish to be considered for relocation under the bilateral Australia-United States agreement, return to Papua New Guinea or Nauru respectively should not be a precondition to such consideration.

Australia’s National Audit Office confirms that holding refugees and asylum-seekers in “offshore processing” facilities costs approximately 15 times more than allowing them to live in community detention in Australia.


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