October 11, 2012
National Affairs Editor, The Age
The United Nations refugee agency has detailed five major concerns about the Gillard government’s plan to send asylum seekers to Papua New Guinea’s Manus Island in the coming weeks.
They include PNG’s failure to sign international treaties against torture and for the protection of stateless people or to formally withdraw seven reservations it has about the refugee convention.
The agency is also worried by the absence of any national legal or regulatory framework to address refugee issues in PNG — or even laws or procedures for the determination of refugee status.
In a letter to Immigration Minister Chris Bowen, the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, Antonio Guterres, welcomes a commitment from PNG to withdraw reservations about rights that would apply to those found to be refugees, but says ”they remain extant at the time of writing”.
Dated October 9, the letter also describes an absence ”any national capacity” in PNG to implement international obligations.
”We recognise that efforts are presently being made to identify and train a small cadre of officers in asylum and refugee issues,” Mr Guterres wrote.
”Over time, capacity will improve but, depending on the scale and complexity of the task of processing cases and protecting refugees under the bilateral arrangements, it will likely remain insufficient for an important period of time.”
The agency says the risk of refoulement, or return to their place of persecution, remains in spite of written undertakings that it would not take place. This was because of the porous and often unregulated nature of PNG’s borders and the limited understanding by border officials of PNG’s protection responsibilities.
”In the past six years a number of attempted expulsions, particularly on the northern border with Indonesia, have been brought to the attention of the UNHCR and the office managed to prevent them,” the letter says.
The final concern related to the quality of protection for asylum seekers and refugees, especially because of the ”very limited opportunities for sustainable local integration”.
This comes as another asylum seeker boat carrying 70 people has been found off the Cocos Islands.
The government said the boat was intercepted by Australian customs vessel Hervey Bay north of the Indian Ocean islands yesterday after initially being sighted by a RAAF maritime patrol aircraft.
It’s the fourth boat arrival in two days, taking the total number of people who have been picked up since Tuesday to 334. The new arrivals will be taken to a detention centre on Christmas Island for security and health checks.
The letter also highlights the the agency’s reservations about the ”no-advantage test” that is intended to apply to those sent to Manus Island and Nauru, whereby they will remain at these locations for the time it would have taken for them to be processed and resettled from transit countries.
It argues that the time taken to resettle cases referred to the UNHCR in South-East Asia may not be a ”suitable comparator”; that there is no ”average” time for resettlement from transit countries; and that the test appears to based on the longer term aspiration for regional processing to be in place.
While supporting the aspiration, the UNHCR describes regional arrangements as ” very much in their early conceptualisation”.
A resolution permitting the transfer of asylum seekers passed through the federal Parliament this week.
A spokesman for Mr Bowen said the government would “take on board” the issues raised by Mr Guterres.
He said the government would to work with the PNG Government on the setting up of the processing centre and it expected the first transfers to occur “in coming weeks”.
“Of course, PNG has already has given Australia the assurances around the principle of non-refoulement and the assessment of asylum claims in line with the Refugee Convention.”