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Men, women and children suffering from harsh physical conditions and legal shortcomings at Pacific Island asylum centres: UNHCR reports

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Men, women and children suffering from harsh physical conditions and legal shortcomings at Pacific Island asylum centres: UNHCR reports

26 November 2013

In two reports released today, the UN Refugee Agency finds that asylum-seekers who had been transferred from Australia to processing centres at Nauru and Manus Island in Papua New Guinea were living in arbitrary detention in conditions that do not meet international standards of treatment.

In Geneva, UNHCR’s Director of International Protection, Volker Türk, said that while the Agency understands Australia’s determination to respond robustly to the challenges of people smuggling and to dissuade people from undertaking dangerous irregular travel by sea, those responses must not neglect the compelling protection needs, safety and dignity of the individuals affected.

“These reports must be seen in the context of what UNHCR has observed to be a sharp deterioration, during the course of the year, in the overall quality of protection and support available to asylum-seekers and refugees who come to Australia by boat,” said Türk.

“Indeed, they highlight 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,” he said.

Releasing the reports of its most recent monitoring visits to Nauru and Papua New Guinea today, UNHCR Regional Representative Richard Towle said that a number of deeply troubling shortcomings were identified in common at both centres, and urged all three States involved to consider the findings and recommendations in the reports.

“In both Nauru and Papua New Guinea, UNHCR was deeply troubled to observe that the current policies, operational approaches and harsh physical conditions at the centres, not only do not meet international standards, but impact very profoundly on the men, women and children housed there,” Towle said.

“In particular, they constitute mandatory detention that is not compatible with international law, 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 said.

With respect to Nauru, UNHCR acknowledged some positive developments since its last visit in March. However, it also observed significant setbacks in refugee processing and a deterioration in reception conditions since the 19 July riot and the announcement that no refugees arriving to Australia by boat 19 July will be settled in Australia.

“We are deeply concerned that, 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 and no decisions at all have been finalized at the centre in PNG,” Towle said.

Similarly, while some improvements were observed since UNHCR’s last inspection of the Papua New Guinea centre 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 survivors of torture and trauma and unaccompanied children - is likely to be an issue of growing 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 Papua New Guinea 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,” Towle said.

“The arrangements at Nauru and Papua New Guinea 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 Refugee Convention” he said.

UNHCR makes a number of recommendations in relation to the concerns outlined above, and stands ready to discuss these with the States concerned.

The full reports, including recommendations, are available at: