UNHCR warns of serious shortcomings at Nauru processing centre

Briefing Notes, 14 December 2012

This is a summary of what was said by UNHCR spokesperson Adrian Edwards to whom quoted text may be attributed at the press briefing, on 14 December 2012, at the Palais des Nations in Geneva.

UNHCR released this morning in Canberra a report from a monitoring mission to the Nauru regional asylum processing centre in the South Pacific. Nauru is the site of an offshore processing centre to which Australia sends asylum-seekers. Although our mission noted that efforts are under way to improve the facilities, current arrangements there do not meet international protection standards. Accommodation conditions are harsh, a fully functioning legal framework is absent, and there is inadequate capacity to assess refugee claims.

UNHCR's team visited Nauru over three days from 3rd to 5th of December. They met Nauruan officials to discuss the country's obligations under the 1951 Refugee Convention. They visited the regional processing centre to review reception conditions, and spoke to asylum-seekers, service providers and officials of the Australian Department of Immigration and Citizenship (DIAC).

What UNHCR found was a lack of clarity as to the legal and operational roles and responsibilities of the two State parties involved in the transfer arrangements. Despite the evident commitment and work of both Australian and Nauru officials, including the establishment by the Government of Nauru of a legal framework for processing asylum claims, considerable and important work remains to be done to establish a functional system for refugee status determination. The current lack of clear and effective processing arrangements for asylum-seekers may be inconsistent with the purpose of the transfers, namely to undertake refugee processing in a fair, humane, expeditious and timely way.

Our team described the conditions at the closed and congested detention centre as harsh, with little natural shelter from the heat during day. These conditions are aggravated by significant noise and dust from the construction of the permanent facility. The team also found a number of transferred asylum-seekers who are suffering from pre-existing trauma, some of them being survivors of torture. This raises questions about the capacity of health providers on Nauru to adequately address such specific needs and about the effectiveness of the pre-transfer assessments undertaken by Australian authorities prior to selection and transfer.

UNHCR fears that the current uncertainty about responsibilities for different aspects of processing and on-going delays in the commencement of such processing are together and over time likely to have a significant and detrimental impact on the mental and physical health of asylum-seekers transferred from Australia to Nauru. Unless these issues are addressed without delay, the impact is likely to be exacerbated by the unsatisfactory reception conditions within the detention settings of the processing centre on Nauru.

Key recommendations of UNHCR's report are the need for more information and clarity for asylum-seekers about their situation, and counselling on the procedures and time frames of various steps in line with international standards. Asylum-seekers should also be provided with adequate conditions of accommodation. The legal framework, rules and procedures for processing of transferred asylum-seekers in Nauru should be completed as a matter of urgency. Our report also calls for review of pre-transfer assessments in Australia to ensure that these fully take into account vulnerabilities of individuals who may have suffered torture or trauma.

UNHCR is not a signatory to the bilateral arrangement between Australia and Nauru relating to the processing of asylum seekers. Our preference has always been an arrangement which would enable all asylum-seekers arriving by boat into Australian territory to be processed in Australia. This would be consistent with general practice.

However, UNHCR will continue to fulfil its monitoring and advisory role under the Refugee Convention and remains committed to supporting Nauru in strengthening its capacity to protect asylum-seekers and refugees.

The first transfers of asylum-seekers from Australia to Nauru took place in mid-September. So far, more than 400 people have been transferred. Between January and October this year 12,279 people sought asylum in Australia.

The report of the mission can be found at http://unhcr.org.au/unhcr/images/2012-12-14%20nauru%20monitoring%20report%20final.pdf

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