November 27, 2013
Offshore processing centres on Nauru and Manus Island are more focused on sending asylum seekers home than promoting “safe, fair and humane conditions”, a scathing United Nations report has found.
The UN High Commissioner for Refugees visited the centres in October, and on Tuesday issued reports finding that Australia’s agreements with its island neighbours had left hundreds in limbo.
The findings paint an especially dire picture for children and survivors of torture.
Nauru inspectors met some of the 95 child detainees, who drew pictures highlighting their distress.
The inspectors found children were living in hot, humid, cramped conditions with little privacy, were not going to school and their parents held deep concerns for their mental health. At the time of the UN visit, there were 801 asylum seekers on Nauru and 1091 asylum seekers on Manus Island, including two unaccompanied children.
The UN found the morale of asylum seekers was extremely low because of delays in processing and uncertainty about their futures.
Just one asylum seeker on Nauru has had their refugee protection claim processed in 14 months, the inspectors found, while none of the asylum seekers on Manus Island had been processed in the 12 months since Australia and Papua New Guinea struck the deal to send asylum seekers bound for Australia to Papua New Guinea.
The agency raised particular concern about the inability of Papua New Guinea’s officials to process asylum seekers’ claims for protection. It painted a picture of confusion and incompetence at the Papua New Guinean centre; for example, there were no clear laws or regulatory guidelines in place for the Papua New Guinean Foreign Affairs Minister or other officials to follow when judging asylum seekers’ claims.
At the time of the agency’s visit, the Papua New Guinean government – which is in charge of processing asylum claims for those Australia sends – had recruited just five officers to make refugee status determinations. Only two or three were on duty at any time, the agency reported, and it will take at least six months before they are able to make decisions “with any degree of sufficiency”.
Of the 1093 asylum seekers held at Manus Island when the UNHCR visited on October 28, only 160 had been able to lodge asylum claims.
Instead, a “return-oriented environment” had developed at both island centres, with no local legal support for asylum seekers.
The UNHCR was concerned that asylum seekers – including some who were “bona fide refugees” – would consider returning because of the uncertainty around processing, lengthy delays in processing and the prospect of settling in Papua New Guinea.
The UNHCR’s director of international protection, Volker Turk, said: “These reports must be seen in the context of what UNHCR has observed to be a sharp deterioration, during the course of the year, in the overall quality of protection and support available to asylum seekers and refugees who come to Australia by boat.
“Indeed, they highlight that, when policies and practices are based primarily on deterrence, they can have harmful and, at times, punishing consequences for people affected, particularly families and children.”
The UN recommended that all pregnant asylum seekers be removed from Nauru until adequate medical facilities are available.
Since the July 19 riot, there had been a deterioration in conditions and all processing had stopped.