UNHCR calls for compassion and legal principles to be at centre of policy responses

UNHCR today called for a more compassionate and principled approach to the asylum debate in Australia, saying that the humanitarian, ethical and legal basis of international refugee protection was in danger of being lost if public debate continued to be based primarily on the idea of deterrence.

“Recent policy announcements have again sparked a volatile round of public debate,” UNHCR Regional Representative Richard Towle said today.

“UNHCR is deeply troubled that as long as the focus remains primarily on deterrence, the humanitarian, ethical and legal basis of asylum, and the protection of refugees, will be seriously undermined.”

Viewing the recently announced arrangements as a whole, UNHCR reiterates its concern that all asylum-seekers in Australia, and those transferred to Papua New Guinea and Nauru, must be given a full, fair and expeditious assessment of their refugee claims as soon as possible.

Those found to be refugees should be given basic human rights and the rights to which they are entitled under the Refugee Convention, including family reunion, work and freedom of movement. Those found not to need protection can be expected to leave the country.

In this regard, UNHCR reiterates its view that the practical application of the ‘no advantage’ test cannot comfortably be aligned with Australia’s obligations under the Refugee Convention nor does it match the realities for refugees in other parts of the world.

UNHCR is particularly concerned about the decision to transfer families, including children, to Manus Island, in the absence of any adequate legal framework, procedures or resources in Papua New Guinea to assess their claims. Ongoing delays in processing of people transferred to Nauru, in unsatisfactory temporary facilities, are also deeply troubling.

UNHCR’s preference remains that all people arriving in Australia be assessed in Australia under fair, efficient and, as needed, robust asylum procedures.

"The current movement of refugees and asylum-seekers raises many challenges for states but we encourage Australia to ensure a humanitarian approach, that is fully compatible with the Refugee Convention, lies at the heart of its response to refugees in need of protection,” Mr Towle said.