UNHCR reports harsh conditions and legal shortcomings at Pacific Island asylum centres

News Stories, 26 November 2013

© UNHCR/N.Wright
A spartan social centre on Nauru, where conditions for asylum-seekers have been criticised by UNHCR.

GENEVA, November 26 (UNHCR) The UN refugee agency, in reports released on Tuesday, says that asylum-seekers transferred from Australia to processing centres on Nauru and Manus Island in Papua New Guinea (PNG) are living in arbitrary detention in conditions that do not meet international standards.

"UNHCR understands Australia's determination to respond robustly to the challenges of people smuggling and to dissuade people from undertaking dangerous irregular travel by sea. However we believe those responses must not neglect the compelling protection needs, safety and dignity of the individuals affected," spokesman Adrian Edwards told journalists in Geneva.

He said that the two reports are also in the context of what UNHCR has observed to be a sharp deterioration this year in the overall quality of protection and support available to asylum-seekers and refugees who come to Australia by boat. It remains the case that when policies and practices are based primarily on deterrence, they can have harmful and, at times, punishing consequences for people affected, particularly families and children.

The reports identify troubling shortcomings at both centres, and urge all three states involved to consider the findings and recommendations and act upon them.

"In both Nauru and PNG the current policies, operational approaches and harsh physical conditions at the centres not only do not meet international standards they also have a profound impact on the men, women and children housed there," Edwards said.

The spokesman said UNHCR was concerned that they constitute mandatory detention, which is not compatible with international law. "We are also worried that they do not provide a fair and efficient system for assessing refugee claims, do not provide safe and humane conditions of treatment in detention, and do not provide for adequate and timely solutions for recognized refugees," he added.

Edwards said the report on Nauru acknowledges some positive developments since UNHCR's last visit in March. "However, there have also been significant setbacks in refugee processing, and a deterioration in reception conditions. Despite a processing system being in place under Nauru law, only one decision has been handed down in the 14 months since the centre reopened."

No decisions at all have been finalized at the centre in PNG, and while some improvements were observed since UNHCR's last inspection in June, the physical conditions within detention, together with the slowness of processing and the lack of clarity regarding safe and sustainable solutions for refugees were likely, together, to have a serious and negative effect on the health and welfare of people transferred from Australia.

At both centres, the psycho-social well-being of vulnerable people including unaccompanied children and survivors of torture and trauma is an issue of concern. UNHCR also called on all three states not to transfer children, particularly those who are unaccompanied, unless and until there has been a marked improvement in conditions in both centres.

"UNHCR is particularly concerned by the impact of policies that will prevent recognized refugees from finding safe, dignified and sustainable solutions in the medium to long term. The prospect for refugees in PNG finding permanent protection there presents formidable challenges, and it is clear that Nauru will offer only very limited opportunities for refugees, even in the shorter term," Edwards stressed.

UNHCR believes the arrangements at Nauru and PNG would benefit from a much clearer articulation of the policy and operational framework that would set out how, when and where refugees will be able to secure protection and exercise the rights required under the 1951 UN Refugee Convention.

The full reports, including recommendations, are available at: www.unhcr.org.au