February 04, 2013
THE Manus Island processing centre set up by the Gillard government has been labelled an affront to international law, with the UN High Commissioner for Refugees accusing Australia of arbitrarily and unlawfully detaining transferred asylum-seekers.
The UNHCR has handed down a scathing report on the Manus Island facility, describing the living arrangements as “harsh” and the conditions for the 34 children there as a “particular cause for concern”.
The UNHCR has also criticised Australia for failing to establish any system for processing the refugee claims of asylum-seekers, the first of whom were transferred to PNG in November.
The UNHCR sent a three-person team to visit the Manus facility which, along with its sister facility on Nauru, was belatedly established by the Gillard government last year after the parliament refused to authorise Labor’s Malaysia people-swap.
The UNHCR, which the government noted yesterday harboured a “longstanding position of opposition” to offshore processing, was particularly critical of the absence of any processing arrangements for testing the refugee claims of asylum-seekers.
While PNG is a signatory to the UN Convention on Refugees, it lacks the experience and the expertise to process the refugee claims of the 254 asylum-seekers detained there.
The team found that while PNG was drafting regulations that would establish a refugee-status-determination framework, there was no timeline as to when it would be done.
“There is no adequate domestic legal framework to implement PNG’s responsibilities under the 1951 Refugee Convention,” the report said. The failure to process refugee claims meant asylum-seekers, children included, were effectively subject to ongoing and mandatory detention. “The current PNG policy and practice of detaining all asylum-seekers at the closed centre . . . amounts to arbitrary detention that is inconsistent with international human rights law,” the UN body said.
According to the UNHCR, detainees complained of the arbitrary and random nature of their transfer to PNG, with other asylum-seekers — sometimes from the same boat — being released into the community on bridging visas. The conditions, too, were frequently substandard, the UNHCR found, noting that the site was envisaged as a temporary arrangement.
The UNHCR urged the refugee claims of children be “prioritised” and that children be moved to child-friendly accommodation once preliminary health checks had been completed. “The current policy and practice of detaining children should be terminated as a matter of priority.”
A spokeswoman for outgoing Immigration Minister Chris Bowen said yesterday the government remained committed to working with the UNHCR in operating the facility.
“The standard of the facilities and amenities in the temporary (centre) are in line with the living standards and amenities for local PNG residents on Manus Island,” the spokeswoman said. “Detainees have appropriate access to health, mental health, education and recreational services.”