Transcript: UNHCR's top Asia official briefs press on Australian offshore processing on Nauru, and UNHCR talks with Bangladesh and Myanmar

This is a transcript of the press briefing by Indrika Ratwatte, UNHCR Director of the Bureau for Asia and the Pacific – to whom quoted text may be attributed – at the Palais des Nations in Geneva on 04 April 2018.

A young Afghan refugee woman, separated from her parents in Australia, looks out of the tent where she has lived for the past five years in Nauru. March 2018.   © UNHCR

Indrika Ratwatte: Thank you and good morning. I undertook a mission to Nauru and UNHCR obviously has regular visits to Nauru and PNG [Papua New Guinea] in the context of the offshore processing policy of Australia which has, as we speak, around 1,100 individuals, asylum-seekers and refugees in Nauru and about another 800 in PNG. And, the purpose of my mission was to also look at the situation on the ground and coordinate also with the Australian authorities and the Nauru authorities on the conditions of the asylum-seekers and refugees and what we consider the minimum efforts that need to be taken to make the life of these people more conducive.

I’ve been working for 25 years in the UN and with refugees and I must say when I went to Nauru I was shocked by the situation of, particularly, the children in Nauru.

The long term detention – five years plus – in Nauru has taken an immense toll on the people and I think three things struck me as really telling of the condition.

One was the mental health situation. Over 80 per cent of the people have been diagnosed by clinical psychiatrists and others as suffering from PTSD and trauma and depression, in both PNG and Nauru. I think the lack of adequate healthcare and psychiatric care really has impacted people. The sense of hopelessness and despair was extremely tangible amongst the group of people here.

The second point, which was also very telling here was the family separation. As you may know, given the cut-off point of when people were brought to Nauru and the others allowed to go to Australia to be settled, some families have been separated. Secondly, there were medical cases, for example, where you would see the mother and child who had gone for medical treatment to Australia, and the father and the daughter are in Nauru, and they are unable to join and they are separated. This has caused also a lot of trauma on the children. One case I remember seeing this little child, 12 years old, tried to speak to her. She was in bed, catatonic, not gotten out of that bed for a week, not gotten out of that room for over a month and the father was desperate as to what to do with this child and this is symptomatic of some of the mental health issues that was there.

The next issue, I think, which needs addressing immediately as well is the withdrawal or the change or the transfer or the transition of services from Manus and in Nauru, where certain services are being provided, particularly medical and psychiatric care, is now going to be given over to the Nauru authorities and here we have expressed a deep concern that there should be adequate capacity, training and ability for the Nauru government to take over these services if they are being given those services and that Australia should commit to continue supporting these efforts. If not, the impact on the asylum-seekers and refugees are going to be quite serious.

Lastly, I think, the whole issue of solutions for these people. We are very encouraged that the bilateral agreement between the US government and Australia has enabled, or will enable, about 1,200 of these asylum-seekers and refugees to find solutions in the US. However, there is still approximately another 1,000 individuals who are in need of solutions. Here we have urged the Australian government to consider taking up the government of … New Zealand’s offer of potential resettlement places and we really urge Australia to consider that option and pursue other options that individuals are not in these detention-like conditions for a further length of time because the evidence of that period in Nauru and Manus on the people, their psychiatric and physical and mental wellbeing is evident and it is quite shocking.

The point here is also that Australia has had a long tradition of supporting refugee programs and humanitarian programs globally but, on this one, the offshore processing policy has had an extremely detrimental impact on refugees and asylum-seekers. And for those who say that these may be people who are not in need of international protection, the statistics indicate 80 per cent plus have been recognised as refugees. So that, in and of itself, shows that these are indeed people in need of protection. This also has been our point of advocacy with the Australian government, that these are people in need of protection, they should be availed with protection and solutions, and offshore processing is not the way forward to deal with providing protection and solutions for the people in need.

These are some of the impressions I had and, I must say, looking at the children and the parents and their despair and hopelessness was striking in these conditions. I’ll leave it at that as initial reflections and I’m happy to take some questions.

The floor was then open for questions.

Question: You mentioned the transfer of services but I’m actually interested in another element of the transfer which is that apparently Nauru has severed its ties with the Australia court of appeals so that migrants – asylum-seekers – no longer have the right to appeal to the Australian judicial system to have their case reviewed and there are obviously some activists who are saying that’s going to leave people in an even more legal limbo. Nauru has sort of said they are going to set up some sort of interim local court of appeal to hear asylum cases but there’s no structure in place and no clarity on how that will play out. Do you have any comment on that?

Indrika Ratwatte: That’s correct. The Nauru government has now decided to set up its own appeal procedures, severing its links with Australia. While that is a sovereign decision of Nauru, we are very keen that there is no gap, one, in the ability of asylum-seekers to seek redress on appeal, that that has to be maintained and until such time Nauru has established a process where appeal can be effectively heard I think Australia should continue to have that facility open and the transition is seamless. The bottom line is that individuals, as you rightly said, have access to appeal procedures.

Question: Can you give us a small summary, what is happening, in terms of who has responsibility upon these people? Australia left but it was a processing centre that they set up. Do they have any responsibility or not at all? As well as…if you can do a breakdown of the numbers. You say 1,100 people but how many of them are children, women, nationalities?

Indrika Ratwatte: Thank you. The breakdown, initially, it was about 3,172 individuals who were transferred from Australia to PNG and Nauru, and today we have about 1,100 in Nauru and 800 in PNG. For example, in Nauru, 40 children were born in Nauru. They have seen nothing but detention-like conditions and another fifty have spent half their life in Nauru. They have seen nothing but half their life in Nauru and in detention. Around 400 cases have been also transferred to Australia for medical and other reasons, and so far around 169, almost 170 individuals have departed to the US under the bilateral arrangement between Australia and the US. In Manus, the caseload is primarily single males, while that is the 800 and in Nauru the 1100 are families and children. So the families are in Nauru and the single males are in Papua New Guinea. On the transfer of services, the real concern is that adequate services are provided with trained, qualified individuals, particularly in mental health, and, as the statistics indicate, this is a serious issue and Nauru should be supported and Australia should live up to its responsibilities vis-à-vis these refugees and asylum-seekers.

Question: I want to understand the legal point. Is Australia bound to do, under International Law? Are they obliged to take care of them – what they do is another story – but should they take care of these people?

Indrika Ratwatte: Under International Law, as a signatory to the 1951 Refugee Convention, the international law obligations for Australia obliges them to have asylum-seekers access their territory and go through status determination procedures. So the offshore processing policy is, indeed, an abrogation of their International Law responsibilities.

Question: Do you have a sense of Australia’s motivations here? Is it cost cutting? They no longer want to bother funding the services in Nauru. What’s going on actually, in your view? And, additionally, I don’t quite understand why Australia would show reluctance toward New Zealand’s offer. New Zealand is offering some resettlement places, why not just say ‘here you go’?

Indrika Ratwatte: I mean two elements, I think, are many individuals initially when there were the boat arrivals – large numbers coming – wanted to look at how to manage this. There was one perception that this might be people abusing asylum systems and there is international, transnational crime, trafficking and smuggling. The point is people are on the move globally, yes, it is a challenge for member states to look at how to manage this process, yes, but this is not the way to do it. You have a process where there is due process for individuals seeking protection who go through the system of status determination and then are either recognised as refugees through that due process or not, and that has been our point to Australia. Saying, is it a challenge? Yes. Should it be managed? Yes. But not in this manner. It can be managed differently. And Australia has had a long tradition of refugee programs and humanitarian programs - a country of migrants and refugees, very hospitable. Many, many refugees have been resettled in Australia. And Australia continues to be a generous supporter of the humanitarian and refugee programs and, on this one, the precedent they are setting also is not the one which should be set by a country which is a signatory to the Refugee Convention.

Question: So if I understand what you’re saying, Australia has decided to no longer provide these essential services in Nauru because they believe the people there are not legitimate asylum-seekers, that they’re people – they’re criminals or people taking advantage of the asylum process?

Indrika Ratwatte: No, Australia has now come up with a policy that they support Nauru financially to provide these services and our point is that it should be adequate, it should be skilled and it should give the level of services needed for individuals.

Question: The New Zealand question, why is Australia not just saying ‘here, this is a good solution’?

Indrika Ratwatte: This is not a question that was answered and we keep asking the question from Australia saying ‘why not, why not’, because it is a very genuine offer and New Zealand has excellent program of resettlement for refugees as well, globally.

Question: Can you give a breakdown of the nationalities of the people on Nauru right now?

Indrika Ratwatte: I don’t have the exact numbers but we have numbers of Afghans, Iranians, some Rohingya refugees, Syrian and also I believe some Sri Lankans and … Myanmar, some other nationalities, some other ethnicities from Myanmar as well, indeed.

Question: When you said 80 per cent are effectively refugees, this … was done by you, UNHCR?

Indrika Ratwatte: No, the status determination is done by Nauru and Australian authorities in their status determination procedures. This is also the point we’ve made that, for those who say these are not individuals in need of protection, 80 per cent have been recognised under due process as having need of international protection – that they’re refugees.

Question: If you have people on this island who have refugee status, you have a country, New Zealand, that has offered to resettle them in accordance with all procedures in the Refugee Convention and Australia is saying actually I’m not sure we want to allow that. I think I’m missing a piece.

Indrika Ratwatte: Your surprise is as good as mine and if I were to venture a speculation I would think that there are some who think that if they go to New Zealand they’ll come back to Australia. Because of family links, or whatever reasons, I think this is one perception I’m assuming, but that’s really not the case because there have been thousands of refugees resettled in New Zealand and its excellent resettlement program.

At this point there were no further questions on Nauru and Australia

Indrika Ratwatte: Just to update you, if I may, on a separate point of interest to you, on Myanmar and Bangladesh, to give you the latest developments here.

As you know, UNHCR was in discussions with the Bangladeshi government on a Memorandum of Understanding on voluntary repatriation, because UNHCR was very keen to have the international principles stated and stipulated in any future potential return – if and when it happens. These negotiations [with Bangladesh] are almost concluded and, hopefully in the near future, we will be signing this agreement with Bangladesh that stipulates the conditions and the standards and the international norms that have to be followed should any voluntary repatriation take place.

Secondly, on the Myanmar side, the government of Myanmar, the UNDP and UNHCR are in discussion on tripartite agreement that will look at access to Rakhine state, to see the conditions on the ground and look at possibilities of having programmes that create conditions within these areas for possible returns and repatriation in the future.

So, two different processes are going on. But, in Myanmar, it’s between UNDP, UNHCR and the government of Myanmar. As you know, we have clearly said access is imperative for the UN and us in the UN family to have access to northern Rakhine to see the situation on the ground.

Question: Would it be fair to say that UNHCR could not advocate for the return of these Rohingyas without some kind of monitoring mechanism on the ground in Rakhine state? If hundreds of thousands of people start going back and the military comes in again, it’s not just going to be a human tragedy, it’s going be a disaster for the international community ‘cause this cycle is now repeating. So would you not like to see some kind of presence on the ground to watch people come home, to observe and to monitor for a period of time?

Indrika Ratwatte: Absolutely. As the High Commissioner in his briefing in the Security Council said – conditions for voluntary repatriation to Myanmar do not exist at this point in time. Two, any repatriation should be voluntary, refugees should be well informed and it should be conducted in safety and dignity. And, as you rightly say, for that to happen it is imperative that we have a presence and meaningful access in northern Rakhine state.

Question: Three months ago when the agreement between Bangladesh and Myanmar government was announced and there was a mention of UNHCR, but then UNHCR said we were not involved in this process. Now you are having an agreement just with Bangladesh. What is the relation with the framework the two countries agreed upon and then you having another agreement just with Bangladesh?

Indrika Ratwatte: The two governments had a bilateral agreement and UNHCR was not involved in that. We were not invited to be part of that. Traditionally what happens it’s always a tripartite [agreement] – the country of asylum, the country of origin and UNHCR. We did tell both governments that even in their bilateral certain clear principals have to be articulated about voluntary nature [of returns], etc. – which in their bilateral agreement is included, which is good. We were not part of that agreement and particularly since we were not, we want to enshrine the principles of voluntary returns, the conditions needed for voluntary returns and because the host country is hosting the refugees we thought it is important to reiterate that with Bangladesh and have that agreement. Ideally, it should have been a tripartite which has the same conditionality.

Question: Why do not you try to have a separate agreement with Myanmar?

Indrika Ratwatte: Well, this is a Myanmar government that came forward because we have been insisting as UNHCR, as the UN family, to have access to northern Rakhine state and they said OK, now we will consider a tripartite agreement with UNDP and UNHCR and that is why we are now in negotiations. To put down the conditions, again, linked to meaningful, unfettered access in northern Rakhine.

Question: Is this both to check what is happening in northern Rakhine and on top of that to set up the conditions to eventually accept some returnees?

Indrika Ratwatte: Primarily, this is to have unfettered access, exactly, and secondly, to be enabled to have programmes that impact the communities and create the conditions for returns, for sustainable returns and reintegration. That again is, if people eventually decide to come. But access is the main fundamental point here, meaningful and unfettered access to Rakhine state which, as you rightly said, right now does not exist.

Question: When you’re negotiating are the Myanmar security forces in the room? Or you negotiate strictly with the civilian government?

Indrika Ratwatte:  No. [We negotiate with] civilian government.

END