UNHCR releases report critical of Nauru processing centre
CANBERRA, Australia, December 14 (UNHCR) - A UN refugee agency report released on Friday welcomes current efforts to improve a regional asylum processing centre used by Australia, but says arrangements at the facility in Nauru currently fall short of international protection standards.
The report was compiled by a monitoring mission sent from December 3-5 to the centre in the small South Pacific island nation. The team found that accommodation conditions were harsh, a fully functioning legal framework was absent and there was inadequate capacity to assess refugee claims.
The team met Nauruan officials to discuss the country's obligations under the 1951 Refugee Convention. They also 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," UNHCR spokesman Adrian Edwards said.
"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," he stressed.
The UNHCR official said that the current lack of clear and effective processing arrangements for asylum-seekers might be inconsistent with the purpose of the transfers, namely to undertake refugee processing in a fair, humane, expeditious and timely way.
The UNHCR team described the conditions at the closed and congested detention centre as harsh, with little natural shelter from the heat during the day. These conditions are aggravated by noise and dust from the construction of the permanent facility. The team also found a number of transferred asylum-seekers who were 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," Edwards said.
UNHCR fears that the current uncertainty about responsibilities for different aspects of processing, and 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 now, 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 accommodation. The legal framework, rules and procedures for processing of transferred asylum-seekers in Nauru should be completed as a matter of urgency. The 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. The refugee agency's 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 can be found at http://unhcr.org.au/unhcr/images/2012-12-14%20nauru%20monitoring%20report%20final.pdf