July 27, 2013
The United Nations refugee agency has warned Australia that its decision to send asylum seekers to Papua New Guinea could breach international law and its human rights obligations.
Around 700 asylum seekers have arrived at Christmas Island since the deal was announced last week, and will be eligible to be resettled in PNG, not in Australia, if they are deemed to be refugees.
But, in its first comments about the so-called PNG solution, the UNHCR describes the deal as a significant shift which could be tantamount to Australia deflecting its responsibilities under the refugee convention.
In a strongly worded statement issued today, the UNHCR said it was troubled by the absence of adequate protections for asylum seekers who will be resettled in PNG.
The statement pointed to “significant shortcomings” in PNG’s ability to legally and humanely process asylum seekers.
“These include a lack of national capacity and expertise in processing, and poor physical conditions within open-ended, mandatory and arbitrary detention settings,” it said.
“This can be harmful to the physical and psycho-social wellbeing of transferees, particularly families and children.”
The UN agency said the assessment was based on recent visits to PNG by UN representatives.
“We’re concerned that the net effect of the measures is that for all intents and purposes Australia ceases to be an asylum country under the convention for anybody coming to the country other than by air,” UNHCR regional representative Richard Towle told The World Today.
“This is a very significant shift and change from the practices used by states around the world.
“We have yet to see how the arrangements will play out, because nobody under the new arrangements has been transferred across to Papua New Guinea.
“But what we can say, and what we know already, is that the transfer to the current physical and legal environment in Papua New Guinea will raise very significant and indeed formidable challenges.”
Doubts raised over whether non-Melanesian refugees can ever be settled in PNG
The UNHCR is also warning that efforts to try and integrate non-Melanesian refugees into the socio-economic and cultural life of PNG will be problematic.
“We’ve been operating and working very closely with the PNG government for more than 30 years dealing with west Papuan refugees, Melanesians who have been well received by their Melanesian brothers across the border,” Mr Towle said.
“We’ve also been trying to do our best with a small number of non-Melanesian asylum seekers and refugees coming into the country.
“To the best of our knowledge there is very, very little opportunity for non-Melanesians to find durable solutions in Papua New Guinea.
“We found it very, very difficult to find any kind of sustainable settlement options for people. And that’s why, in past years, Australia has been very helpful in actually receiving resettlement refugees from PNG, precisely because of the impossibility of integration there.
“We’re concerned now that this is reversing the logic with the assumption that somehow people who are determined to be refugees … can find a sustainable integration solution [in PNG]. There are many socio-economic and cultural issues in PNG that are particular to that country, and people from the outside, particularly non-Melanesians, would find it enormously difficult to find a sustainable integration.”
Australia could be called on to resettle refugees if PNG option falls apart
Mr Towle also warned that Australia could ultimately find itself obliged to accept refugees who had initially been settled in PNG under the deal.
“The act of transfer physically does not divest the transferring state, in this case Australia, of the responsibility for ongoing protection,” he said.
“If protection cannot be found in Papua New Guinea, and if protection can’t be found through any other resettlement options to any other country, then we would think it logical that the residual responsibility rests with Australia.
“It’s pretty clear that if the responsibilities under the convention maintain after the transfer, that those obligations will remain. If protection options can’t be found somewhere else, then the protection responsibilities rest with the transferring state.”
While recognising the significant problem of boat arrivals in Australia and associated exploitation of asylum seekers, including “families, unaccompanied children and other vulnerable individuals”, the UNHCR said Australia and PNG had a shared responsibility to adhere to the principles of the 1951 Refugee Convention, to which both are signatories.
“This is important for the countries involved, for the global asylum system, and for all those in need of international protection,” the statement said.