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UNHCR concerned by Australia's handling of boat people

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UNHCR concerned by Australia's handling of boat people

11 November 2003 Also available in:

11 November 2003

GENEVA - The UN refugee agency said on Tuesday it was deeply troubled by an Australian Government decision to prevent a group of 14 persons, thought to be asylum seekers, from having their protection needs examined.

UNHCR believes that if indeed these people were trying to seek asylum, and there are strong indications that they were, they should have been given at least temporary admission to Australia and access to a proper procedure to determine whether they were in need of protection.

Instead, the Australian navy compelled the Minasa Bone, the Indonesian fishing boat carrying the 14, to go to the Indonesian Island of Yamdena, after removing 4,000 islands, including Melville Island, from Australia's migration zone. "Our main concern is that people who are already vulnerable have been made even more vulnerable by Australia's neglect of its international obligations," said Jean Marie Fakhouri who heads UNHCR's Bureau for Asia and the Pacific.

Unlike Australia, Indonesia has no infrastructure in place to deal with asylum seekers. It also does not allow recognized refugees to remain in the country. Australia's actions are at variance with the 1951 UN Refugee Convention and have in effect jeopardized the proper functioning of the international protection regime. This responsibility-shifting move sets a negative precedent worldwide, that could lead some states to place the burden on countries which have scarce resources and may already be coping with large numbers of refugees.

UNHCR is also gravely concerned by an Indonesian government statement of 10 November that the 14 persons would be returned to their country of origin where they could face persecution. Should they be returned, Indonesia and Australia would be complicit with possible "refoulement" (or forced return) to dangerous situations.

UNHCR shares Australia's and Indonesia's concern over the global plague of people smuggling and supports efforts to combat this infamous trade. However, the fact that asylum seekers are smuggled does not deprive them of any rights regarding access to fair and effective protection and assistance measures.