UNHCR welcomes close of Australia's Pacific Solution

Briefing Notes, 8 February 2008

This is a summary of what was said by UNHCR spokesperson Jennifer Pagonis to whom quoted text may be attributed at the press briefing, on 8 February 2008, at the Palais des Nations in Geneva.

UNHCR welcomes the end of Australia's Pacific Solution which comes to a close today (Friday), with the departure of last remaining 21 refugees from the tiny Pacific Island state of Nauru for Australia. The 21 Sri Lankan refugees left Nauru for Brisbane this morning local time, and were then travelling on to Sydney, Perth, Adelaide, Cairns and Melbourne.

The group were among 83 asylum seekers intercepted on their way to Australia on 22 February last year. They were taken first to the Australian territory of Christmas Island and then transferred to Nauru on 17 March 2007 to have their refugee claims assessed. All were determined to be refugees.

UNHCR had strong concerns about the 'Pacific Solution' a deterrence policy which diverted more than 1,600 asylum seekers to Nauru or Papua New Guinea (PNG), denying them access to Australian territory to lodge asylum claims. It was introduced by the Australian Government in 2001 in the wake of the Tampa episode when the Norwegian Freighter, the MV Tampa, was refused permission to disembark 433 mainly Afghan asylum seekers it had rescued at sea. The asylum seekers 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, sparking the Pacific Solution policy.

The last detainee left Manus Island, PNG, in 2004 and, in our view, today's closure of the centre on Nauru signals the end of a difficult chapter in Australia's treatment of refugees and asylum seekers. Many bona fide refugees caught by the policy spent long periods of isolation, mental hardship and uncertainty and prolonged separation from their families.

We welcome the prompt decision taken by the new Australian Government to end the Pacific Solution and bring the refugees to Australia. We hope that any continuation of offshore processing on the Australian territory of Christmas Island reflects 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. This would include 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.