GENEVA: The United Nations (UN) refugee agency took Australia to task on Wednesday over a tough new policy that allows boat people who reach its mainland to be sent to remote Nauru or Papua New Guinea for detention while their asylum claims are processed.
The so-called “excision” rules, passed last week, extend previous legislation which only allowed the authorities to send boat people for detention in the Pacific nations if they reached Australian offshore territories.
The office of the UN High Commissioner for Refugees said that the approach was at best wrong, and fell foul of the 1951 international treaty covering handling of asylum.
“UNHCR’s position has always been for all asylum seekers arriving into Australian territory, by whatever means, and wherever, to be given access to a full and efficient refugee status determination process in Australia. This would be consistent with general practice, and in line with international refugee law,” said Volker Turk, its head of international protection.
“If asylum seekers are transferred to another country, the legal responsibility for those asylum seekers may in some circumstances be shared with that other country,” he added.
UNHCR underlined that it had found “serious shortcomings” at asylum centres in Nauru and Papua New Guinea, including conditions and processing delays.
The agency said it was imperative that the more than 18,000 asylum seekers who have arrived by boat to Australia since 13 August 2012 be provided with a fair and effective asylum procedure.
Any detention of asylum seekers must be strictly in accordance with Australia’s refugee and human rights law obligations, it added.
Australia argued that the change was needed to strip away any advantage gained by asylum seekers who arrive on the mainland, where boat people increasingly have been heading to avoid detention.
Most boats land at or are intercepted near the remote Australian territories of Christmas Island, close to Indonesia’s Java, or the Cocos Islands in the Indian Ocean.
Both are considered to be “excised” from Australia for immigration purposes, meaning they are subject to special laws allowing for refugees who land there to be processed in regional centres in the Pacific.
Though refugees come in relatively small numbers by global standards, the issue is a political flashpoint in Australia and is expected to be a key issue in national elections in September.