Category Archives: UNHCR

UN accuses Australia of systematically violating torture convention

March 10, 2015 | the guardian

Tony Abbott reacts angrily to report criticising Australia’s detention policies, saying Australians are ‘sick of being lectured to by the United Nations’.

Nauru children asylum seekers protest on Australia Day Nauru children asylum seekers protest on Australia Day. The UN has found that their detention breaches the Convention Against Torture. Photograph: Supplied

Australia is systematically violating the international Convention Against Torture by detaining children in immigration detention, and holding asylum seekers in dangerous and violent conditions on Manus Island, a United Nations report has found.

But the prime minister, Tony Abbott, reacted angrily to the scathing findings, saying Australians were “sick of being lectured to by the United Nations”.

The United Nations special rapporteur on torture, Juan Mendez, has investigated allegations of torture and abuse of 68 countries, in a report to be delivered to the UN Human Rights Council on Monday.

The section on Australia is concerned entirely with the treatment of asylum seekers in immigration detention.

“The government of Australia, by failing to provide adequate detention conditions; end the practice of detention of children; and put a stop to the escalating violence and tension at the regional processing centre, has violated the right of the asylum seekers including children to be free from torture or cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment,” Mendez’s report said.

Two asylum seekers on Manus Island, referred to as Mr A and Mr B, allege they were tied to chairs by security staff and threatened with “physical violence, rape, and prosecution for ‘becoming aggressive’” if they refused to retract statements they had made to police about the murder of Reza Barati during detention centre riots.

Mendez’s report found those men’s rights were also breached.

“The rapporteur concludes that there is substance in the allegations presented in the initial communication, reiterated above, and thus, that the government of Australia, by failing to provide any additional information or details of the investigation into Mr A’s and Mr B’s allegations, has violated their right to be free from torture or cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment.”


And Mendez found that two government amendments to immigration legislation both risk violating international law prohibiting torture.

“The Migration and Maritime Powers Legislation Amendment … violates the Convention Against Torture because it allows for the arbitrary detention and refugee determination at sea, without access to lawyers. The Migration Amendment (Character and General Visa Cancellation Bill) violates the CAT because it tightens control on the issuance of visas on the basis of character and risk assessments.”

When asked about the report on Monday, Abbott said the UN’s representatives “would have a lot more credibility if they were to give some credit to the Australian government” for stopping dangerous boat journeys by asylum seekers.

“I really think Australians are sick of being lectured to by the United Nations, particularly given that we have stopped the boats, and by stopping the boats, we have ended the deaths at sea,” the prime minister said during a media conference in Western Australia.

“The most humanitarian, the most decent, the most compassionate thing you can do is stop these boats because hundreds, we think about 1,200 in fact, drowned at sea during the flourishing of the people smuggling trade under the former government.

“The best thing you can do to uphold the universal decencies of mankind, the best thing that you can do to ensure that the best values of our world are realised is to stop the boats and that’s exactly what we have done.”

Asked again whether he accepted the UN’s findings about Manus Island, Abbott said the conditions were “reasonable under all the circumstances” and “all of the basic needs of the people on Manus Island are being met”.

“Everyone’s needs for food, for clothing, for shelter, for safety are being more than met, thanks to the good work of the PNG government, the Australian government and the people who are running the centre,” he said.

Abbott’s criticism of the UN follows his claim the Australian Human Rights Commission, in particular its president, professor Gillian Triggs, acted in a “blatantly partisan” way with its inquiry into children in immigration detention.

The immigration minister, Peter Dutton, has also been contacted for comment on the UN report.

The 31-year-old United Nations Convention Against Torture and Other Cruel, Inhuman or Degrading Treatment or Punishment is one of the most widely-supported conventions in the world. Some 157 countries are parties to the convention.

Australia ratified the treaty in 1989, and is legally bound by it.

The director of legal advocacy with the Human Rights Law Centre, Daniel Webb, said the UN report confirmed that Australia’s offshore processing policy was failing to meet basic human rights standards, and that new legislation would risk further breaches of international law.

“Under international law, Australia can’t lock people up incommunicado on a boat somewhere in the middle of the ocean. Nor can we return people to a place where they face the risk of being tortured. Yet these are precisely the powers the government has sought to give itself through recent amendments to its maritime law.”

Australia relied on international law and to protect its own interests, Webb said.

“So it’s incredibly short-sighted for the government to start thumbing its nose at the UN system just because it doesn’t like what it’s being told.”

Ben Pynt from Humanitarian Research Partners said the government was simply attempting to sweep torture allegations “under the rug”.

“The prime minister has attempted to discredit the special rapporteur on torture in the same way as he attacked Professor Triggs, as biased and disreputable. What he did not do is counter the evidence provided or in any way attempt to disprove the allegations of torture, which the global authority on torture found to be substantiated.”

The special rapporteur’s report addresses allegations of torture and inhumane treatment in 68 countries. It criticises, as well, the United States for holding a mentally ill man on death row for 30 years, and raises concerns with the UK over several proposed deportations.

Papua New Guinea did not respond to inquiries from the UN over its handling of the Manus detention centre.

Australia is currently actively lobbying for a seat on the Human Rights Council, in the ballot to take place in 2017.

The foreign minister, Julie Bishop told Fairfax Australia’s bid was “consistent with our nation’s history of promoting and protecting human rights”.

“We abide by our international obligations and we are confident that our experience and our commitment to human rights protection and promotion makes us a strong contender for the UNHRC.”

Shadow minister for immigration Richard Marles described the prime minister’s attack as “absurd”.

“Instead of launching a cheap attack on the report’s author, Tony Abbott should be providing an assurance that all the processing facilities Australia funds are run in a safe, humane and proper manner.”

The last Labor government re-opened the Manus Island detention centre in November 2012.

In response to the Prime Minister’s comments, special rapporteur Mendez told ABC radio the UN Human Rights Council – to which Australia is seeking election – was only doing its job.

“I’m sorry that he considers what we do lecturing. We don’t, we think it’s our role,” Mendez said.

“We treat every country the same way. We just try to uphold international standards as we understand them.”

Mendez said he paid credit to Australia for its “robust, democratic system with guarantees of human rights for everybody”.

“But it is my mission, my duty, to point out when any country, including Australia, falls short of its obligations under international law.”

He said the lengthy, arbitrary detention of asylum seekers, simply because they had arrived by boat, was “not a good course of action”.

Mendez is professor of international law at the American University, and was formerly special adviser to the prosecutor of the international criminal court.

In his native Argentina, he represented political prisoners against the military dictatorship and was himself targeted by the regime.

Mendez was arrested and tortured – including with electric shocks and having the barrel of a gun put in his mouth – and was detained for 18 months. He was ultimately expelled from Argentina.



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UNHCR says almost 350,000 people took to the seas to seek asylum or migrate this year

December 11, 2014 | ABC News

Italian Navy rescues migrants from a boat on the Mediterranean Sea

Italian Navy rescues migrants from a boat on the Mediterranean Sea

Almost 350,000 people have taken to the seas this year in search of asylum or migration, the United Nations refugee agency says.

The United Nations High Commission for Refugees said this was a record number of people involved in the risky sea journeys around the world.

Since January this year, 348,000 people had boarded the boats. The bulk of the arrivals had been in Europe, where more than 207,000 people had crossed the Mediterranean.

This was almost three times more than the previous high of about 70,000 in 2011 during the Libyan civil war.

The conflicts in Libya were again a factor this year, as well as the situation in Syria and Iraq, and the war in Ukraine.

Worldwide this year 4,272 people had died in the process of making sea journeys.

Governments must focus on saving lives: UNHCR

UN High Commissioner for Refugees Antonio Guterres said governments must focus on saving lives, rather than keeping foreigners out.

“This is a mistake, and precisely the wrong reaction for an era in which record numbers of people are fleeing wars,” he said in a statement.

“Security and immigration management are concerns for any country, but policies must be designed in a way that human lives do not end up becoming collateral damage.”

Mr Guterres said the international community’s response had been marred by confusion over how to tackle the problem.

He said all players should address the root causes of why people had fled and should crack down on the criminal networks profiting from desperate would-be migrants.

He also highlighted the importance of having systems to deal with arrivals to distinguish real refugees from migrants.

His comments were made as the UNHCR began a two-day debate on the issue with government officials, aid workers, coastguards, lawyers, academics and other experts.

Less than two months ago Italy announced it would halt a sea rescue mission — Mare Nostrum — that had saved the lives of more than 100,000 migrants from Africa and the Middle East since it began more than a year ago.

Italy said it would be replaced by a smaller European Union scheme.

Boat people ‘at risk of beatings, torture, rape’

UNHCR said for the first time, people from “refugee producing countries” had become a major source of those leaving their homelands by boat, accounting for almost half the individuals undertaking sea journeys.

Most were from Syria, where conflict has raged for nearly four years, and Eritrea, where human rights experts said national service was an indefinite conscription that amounted to forced labour.

Besides the Mediterranean, there were at least three other major sea routes being used by migrants and asylum seekers.

In the Horn of Africa, more than 80,000 people, mainly from Ethiopia and Somalia, crossed the Gulf of Aden and the Red Sea between the start of January and the end of November en route to Yemen or Saudi Arabia.

In South East Asia, an estimated 54,000 people had taken to the sea so far this year, most of them leaving Bangladesh or Myanmar to head to Thailand or Malaysia.

In the Caribbean, nearly 5,000 people took to boats to flee poverty or in search of asylum, UNHCR said.

Many travel in rickety, unseaworthy boats. Others die or fall victim to human traffickers.

UNHCR spokesman William Spindler on Friday said ethnic tensions in Myanmar and little prospect of integration in Bangladesh were driving more Rohingya — a mostly stateless Muslim people — to the open seas.

He said the vast majority use people smugglers, who typically charge them very little, to make the crossings. Once they arrive they were held for ransom in secluded camps.

“In some cases these people stay there for months under terrible conditions,” Mr Spindler said.

“We know of beatings, torture, rape against these refugees and migrants.”



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Scott Morrison may gloat but asylum seekers’ boats haven’t really stopped

December 11, 2014 | the guardian

Two facts emerge as the UNHCR meets in Geneva to look at protection for refugees at sea: more people than ever are fleeing their country by boat, and deterrence doesn’t stop them.

asylum seeker boat

‘The UNHCR estimates that around 21,000 people have departed from the Bangladesh-Burmese maritime border in the two months of October and November 2014.’ Photograph: AAP

For all the slogans and military operations, over 54,000 people have boarded boats across the Indian Ocean this year, with around 20,000 in just the two months of October and November. As much as Scott Morrisonmay gloat, the boats haven’t really stopped.

The point you won’t see on any media release or hear at a doorstop press conference is this: even if people haven’t drowned on the way to Australia, they’ve still drowned. Because people fleeing countries in the region are still getting on boats.

There are many inconvenient facts for those who won’t stop talking about stopping the boats. But perhaps the facts are not so bothersome if they aren’t on the nightly news. After all, if an asylum seeker drowns well enough away from Australian territorial waters, will there be a leadership challenge today? And have you seen Julie Bishop’s broach?

For the rest of us, here are some details.

According to the UNHCR report on Irregular Maritime Movements in South-East Asia, over 50,000 people set sail just from the Bay of Bengal area in January-November 2014. The smugglers operating in the region move people who aretrafficked as well as those paying for passage outside of legal migration channels. The latter includes people such as ethnic Rohingya who do not have any nationality (and therefore no official travel documentation) and have a long history of persecution and discrimination by the Burmese government.

The UNHCR estimates that around 21,000 people have departed from the Bangladesh-Burmese maritime border in the two months of October and November 2014. About 10% were women, and around one-third of arrivals interviewed by UNHCR in Thailand and Malaysia were minors. The numbers for October 2014 are a marked increase (37%) from the year before.

And not all the deaths at sea are merely from drowning, according to the report:

“One in every three interviewees said at least one other passenger on their boat died en route; one in every 10 said 10 or more people died on board. Deaths were attributed to severe beatings by the crew, lack of food and water, illness, and heat.”

Globally, around 350,000 people have risked it all by taking a boat this year. On 10-11 December 2014, UNHCR is hosting a meeting looking specifically atprotection at sea. The non-governmental organisations taking part haverecommended, among other things, that to implement effective protection and ensure safety at sea, it is vital to “address ‘route causes’ and ‘root causes’ of forced and dangerous migration”.

UNHCR notes that these reasons for irregular movement include: conflict and war, protracted refugee situations, statelessness, the absence or inadequacy of protection systems, family separation, poverty and economic inequality.

What is notably absent from all the recommendations to “stop the boats” from these experts is deterrence, which in Morrison’s parlance is also known as “taking the sugar off the table”. This was of course the honourable minister’s reasoning last month for reducing the number of refugees Australia would resettle from Indonesia and banning those who registered with UNHCR in Indonesia after 1 July 2014 from ever getting to Australia.

Sweet though that poison may be (and poisonous is certainly how one can characterise the way Australia treats those who come across the sea), no refugee is paying a people smuggler for any sort of benefit other than getting the hell out of the hell they were in.

At the opening of the UNHCR meeting yesterday, the High Commissioner forRefugees António Guterres said, “You can’t stop a person who is fleeing for their life by deterrence, without escalating the dangers even more”.

So what would work to actually stop people getting on boats? Again, according to the NGO recommendations, practical solutions for preventing irregular migration by sea include:

  • More opportunities for legal migration
  • Cooperative international agreements by states to provide more safe-havens for asylum seekers, e.g., through expanded UNHCR resettlement programmes; and
  • Migration and asylum policies that recognise the benefits of migration and the contributions of migrants and refugees to the development of countries of destination and origin.

It’s ultimately pretty simple and obvious: the key to reducing irregular movement of people by dangerous ways is to increase pathways for properly managed, safe and regulated movement. It involves as Guterres said, “looking at why people are fleeing, what prevents them from seeking asylum by safer means”.

In practice, nobody is going to be able to neatly pack their passport and customs declarations cards in order to flee discrimination or state persecution in a “regular” way. Which is why, in the case of those people, the Refugees Convention set up a system for countries around the world to join forces to help them, and why the UNHCR’s resettlement process allows for countries to accept refugees who cannot return to where they fled. Both of which the Australian government is slowly but surely repudiating.

Opening and expanding legal channels for migration and the movement of asylum seekers and refugees will reduce the use of smugglers and black-market operations. But for various reasons it’s doubtful Australia would be checking off anything on that list of solutions any time soon.

And so the boats will sail on, but just a little further off Morrison’s horizon.


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Al Jazeera zooms in on alleged abuse of refugees in Malaysian detention centres

November 20, 2014 | The Malaysian Insider

 An exclusive report by Al Jazeera claims children are among refugees in detention centres in Malaysia. – Pic courtesy of Al Jazeera, November 20, 2014.An exclusive report by Al Jazeera claims children are among refugees in detention centres in Malaysia. – Pic courtesy of Al Jazeera, November 20, 2014.Malaysia’s treatment of refugees has come under the spotlight again following an Al Jazeera news report which highlights the horrendous conditions and exploitation of refugees in prison as well as corrupt dealings by local United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) staff.

In a yet-to-be-aired 101 East programme, titled “Malaysia’s Unwanted”, senior presenter and reporter Steve Chao went undercover as a priest to gain access into the “notorious” detention centres where refugees who are arrested are placed.

According to UNHCR, there are some 150,000 refugees who have fled from their home countries to Malaysia, hoping to be relocated to a third country.

However, Malaysia, which has recently been elected as one of the UN Security Council non-permanent members, has refused to sign the 1951 Refugee Convention or its 1967 Protocol to recognise the status of refugees.

Therefore, refugees are not allowed to work or even go to school, which has prompted them to set up their own community centres for their children’s education.

They can also be detained at any time and placed into the already overcrowded detention centres where Chao found them living in squalid conditions.

The report showed Chao’s encounters with dozens of refugees inside these facilities, many of whom are chained and handcuffed and others who have not eaten for days.

He also found women who were hauled in just hours after giving birth and children, which is a violation of the UN Convention on Child Rights.

Refugees are kept in their cramped cells all day long and some revealed to Chao that they had been forced to strip naked in front of others and are then beaten, slapped and kicked while one former detainee tells the Al Jazeera journalist that he had been subject to abuse with a steel pole.

Although Malaysian authorities have admitted that abuse cases do happen in the detention centres, Putrajaya has maintained that the conditions are better than in other countries.

Chao also unearthed an illegal trade in UNHCR registration cards, headed by a local representative.

“All the money from this activity goes into the pockets of some top guys in the UN. We have been doing this with him for a long time. We are thieves, and we look for thieves above us,” a UN translator was quoted as saying.

The UNHCR mission in Malaysia have been overwhelmed with refugees seeking help as more than 1,000 refugees and asylum seekers come to their office every day.

“We’re like an accident and emergency hospital, not a general hospital. In an accident and emergency hospital you make tough decisions all the time about triaging and prioritising who is the neediest of the people in an already needy group of people,” Richard Towle, who leads the UNHCR mission, said. – November 20, 2014.


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Asylum seekers registered with UNHCR in Indonesia after June no longer eligible for resettlement in Australia, Scott Morrison says

November 18, 2014 | ABC News

Asylum seekers who registered with the United Nations in Indonesia after June this year will no longer be eligible for resettlement in Australia, the Immigration Minister has announced.

The Federal Government said the move would hurt people smugglers.

Immigration Minister Scott Morrison said Australia would continue to resettle some refugees who registered with the UN in Indonesia before that point, however there would not be as many places allocated, meaning the waiting period would be much longer.

“These changes should reduce the movement of asylum seekers to Indonesia and encourage them to seek resettlement in or from countries of first asylum,” Mr Morrison said in a statement.

“The Government’s policies under Operation Sovereign Borders have not only saved lives at sea, but also allowed more places under our humanitarian program for the world’s most desperate and vulnerable refugees.

“It is important that these places are not taken up by people seeking to exploit the program by shopping for resettlement through a transit country.”

Greens leader Christine Milne described the decision as disgraceful.

“This is more cruelty, it’s unacceptable, and it just shows the rest of the world that Australia is a very hard-hearted, self-centred country, and that is a very bad place for us to be in a global context,” she said.

Mr Morrison said Australia’s humanitarian program in 2014-15 would provide 13,750 places, including 11,000 places for people overseas.

He said the Indonesian government had been briefed on the Government’s latest decision.

Refugee and immigration lawyer David Manne said the change would mean more refugees would be trapped in limbo.

“The fundamental problem with this is that it does nothing to improve the plight of refugees needing protection within our region,” he told PM.

“Instead, what it does is again propose a move which will involve Australia shirking its responsibility to refugees in the region and failing to shoulder its fair share of the responsibility to protect refugees.

“It is also the type of move which indicates to the region that Australia is intent upon deterring refugees from coming to Australia, even by way of resettlement, without taking up its fair share of responsibility for the protection of refugees.”


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Manus Island asylum seeker writes to UN in bid to access healthcare

October 27, 2014 | the guardian

Asylum seeker says he will lose an eye injured in detention centre unrest and is being kept from specialist care.

Gillian Triggs
The president of the Australian Human Rights Commission, Gillian Triggs, says delayed medical treatment is a “persistent complaint” among asylum seekers.Photograph: Lukas Coch/AAP

An asylum seeker who had an eye gouged and lost several teeth duringunrest at Manus Island detention centre in February has written to the United Nations in a desperate plea to receive proper medical care.

There are growing concerns from human rights experts about the lengthy delays for medical treatment asylum seekers held in offshore processing centres face, even when suffering from serious conditions.

In the letter sent on Monday, the asylum seeker described how he could no longer concentrate or sleep at night because of his pain.

The asylum seeker, who is from Iraq, wrote that after he was injured inthe protests he was taken to Port Moresby, where a consultant ophthalmologist referred him to a specialist on the Australian mainland because she did not have the equipment needed to assess him.

The specialist said his right eye was irreparable and would need to be removed. “He told me to see him again after 20 days,” the asylum seeker wrote. “Before I saw him again I was taken by force and brought back to Manus Island. Right now, I cannot attend any class, cannot sleep at all during [the] day and night and I cannot see anything with my right eye because I lost sight completely.”

The asylum seeker wrote that he wants to go back to the specialist to have his treatment completed, nearly nine months after he was first injured. He also suffers from diabetes and relies on painkillers to get by.

He described how he was injured, writing he had been in his room and was not taking part in the protests when Papua New Guinean police and officers from the security firm G4S stormed his room.

“I was taken from under my bed and was beaten severely,” he wrote.

“As a result I lost my sight because they hit [a] big wooden stick on my right eye and … on my mouth and I lost two teeth.”

Prof Gillian Triggs, president of the Australian Human Rights Commission, said delayed medical treatment was a “persistent complaint” among those held in Australia’s offshore processing centres.

“We have to be careful about these allegations until proven true, but there were many incidents we found where the facts stood up to scrutiny,” she said.

“There was one case where a baby had a huge lump under its chin and if that occurred in suburban Australia, that baby would have been rushed to hospital immediately. This baby didn’t get attention for 10 days, and only because a medical officer travelling with me made an issue out of it, as did I.”

The Australian government had an especially high duty of care to those in offshore detention, Triggs said.

“The point we make is when you put people on islands hours away from medical care, you have an even higher duty of care to them than elsewhere because you’ve put them in harm’s way, and that harm almost inevitably happens.”

Hamid Kehazaei, a detainee at Manus island detention centre who diedafter waiting weeks for medical treatment for a foot infection, was not scheduled to be seen by a doctor until three weeks after his death.

In August, Kehazaei, an Iranian, asked to see a doctor on the offshore processing centre after cutting his foot and experiencing extreme pain.

But he did not immediately get an appointment and weeks later, he was evacuated to a Brisbane hospital suffering from severe septicaemia. On 5 September he was declared brain dead and his life support was switched off.

A schedule of doctor appointments at the detention centre revealed to Guardian Australia shows Kehazaei was to be seen on September 27 at 9.45am, almost two months after first requesting an appointment.

Ben Pynt, director of Human Rights Advocacy, said denying people medical treatment amounted to torture under international humanitarian law.

“We’re seeing hundreds of people whose medical treatment has been delayed or denied,” Pynt said. “Sometimes when we alert the Department of Immigration about such cases they do take action, which suggests they don’t know what’s going on or have been unwilling to find out.” Guardian Australia has contacted the department for comment.

Pynt said asylum seekers needing urgent medical care should immediately be brought to Australia for treatment.

“There is no other option because treatment on Manus is insufficient,” he said. “Most asylum seekers are left waiting days or weeks before they can see a doctor, and on Manus 87 people are on the specialist treatment waiting list. This is just so common.” There were also 150 people on the dental waiting list at Manus, Pynt said.

In another letter sent in early October, an asylum seeker, also detained on Manus Island, wrote he had been waiting 14 months to see a dentist.

“There’s no remedy available for us,” the letter said. “Only Panadol and water. We are waiting for dentist during last year. I have toothache too. I lost [two] teeth.”

In August, the Royal Australasian College of Physicians, the Royal Australian College of General Practitioners and the Australian Medical Association called for the establishment of an independent medical advisory body to audit the treatment of asylum seekers in detention.

A spokeswoman from International Health and Medical Services, contracted by the Australian government to manage healthcare on offshore processing centres, said a triage system was used to assess patients, the same as would be used for treating patients in a hospital environment.

“There is no impediment to transferees seeking immediate medical attention for any matter from the 24/7 services that are available, either via a medical request form or by an unscheduled visit,” she said.

Do you know more?


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Asylum seekers: Morrison to sign resettlement deal with Cambodia

September 24, 2014 | the guardian

Australian immigration minister will later this week seal controversial agreement to move refugees from Nauru to southeast Asian nation.

Australia is seeking to move asylum seekers from the island of Nauru. Photograph: Torsten Blackwood/AFP

Cambodia and Australia will sign a controversial refugee resettlement deal later in the week, which will facilitate the transfer of refugees who have arrived in Australia and been transferred to the tiny island state of Nauru to be resettled in the impoverished southeast Asian nation.

Neither Australia nor Cambodia has shared details of the deal with the United Nations Refugee Agency (UNHCR), despite serious concerns it will break international law.

The Cambodian government said on Wednesday that Australia’s immigration minister, Scott Morrison, will sign a memorandum of understanding (MOU) between the two governments on Friday.

Morrison later released a statement confirming the two countries would sign an MOU later in the week but gave no further details on the content of the deal.

According to a statement released by Cambodia’s ministry of foreign affairs and international co-operation, Morrison will pay a two-day visit to Phnom Penh starting on Friday and will co-sign the memorandum with Cambodia’s interior minister, Sar Kheng, at 3pm.

Negotiations between the two countries began in February, when Australia’s foreign minister, Julie Bishop, paid a visit to Cambodia.

But the full details of the deal have not been publicly disclosed and refugee advocacy groups, as well as the UNHCR, have expressed concern about the welfare of the refugees upon their arrival in Cambodia.

Vivian Tan, a UNHCR press officer in Bangkok, said in an email to Guardian Australia on Wednesday that she did not have the details of the agreement, because the UNHCR has not been a party to it, but have “expressed our concerns to officials of both governments based on what we know about it”.

“The UNHCR is worried about the adverse precedent being set by this type of arrangement that in the first instance, transfers asylum-seekers who have sought Australia’s protection to Nauru, in conditions that have previously been described as harmful, then relocates refugees recognised in Nauru to Cambodia.

“Asylum-seekers should ordinarily be processed, and benefit from protection, in the territory of the state where they arrive, or which otherwise has jurisdiction over them,” Tan added.

She said the UNHCR is also concerned that the practice of relocating refugees to other countries “where they may not be able to access fundamental rights” enables countries to divest themselves of their responsibilities as regards the 1951 Refugee Convention.

Human rights groups and legal bodies in both Australia and Cambodia have said they have not been consulted on its contents.

Numerous groups have voiced serious concerns that the resettlement deal is in violation of Australia’s international obligations under the Refugee Convention.

The Cambodia Daily reported on Wednesday unconfirmed details that the deal that the deal could be worth $40m.

The Australian Greens immigration spokeswoman, Sarah Hanson-Young, described the impending MOU as a “dirty refugee deal”.

“Cambodia doesn’t have the capacity to look after these refugees, but the Abbott government simply doesn’t care,” Hanson-Young said.

“As one of the poorest nations in the world, Cambodia struggles to care for its own citizens, let alone the refugees that Australia wants to dump there.

“Those most at risk if the Abbott government goes ahead with this shameful deal will be vulnerable young women and girls.

“This is not what a regional solution looks like, this is cruelty.

More than 20% of the Cambodian population live below the poverty line, according to the World Bank.

At present, refugees coming to Cambodia rely heavily on support provided by NGOs such as the Jesuit Refugee Service. It assists with helping new arrivals find accommodation, attend language classes, and also provides small start-up loans.

However, Cambodia has a poor record with regard to its duty of care toward refugees. In December 2009, on the eve of a $1bn investment deal with China, Cambodia forcibly deported to China 20 Uighurs whose applications for asylum were still being processed. Of these, two were children and one of the women was pregnant. The decision was met with outrage from Amnesty International and the World Uyghur Congress.

Hanson-Young said that the Greens have received advice that the Australian government would need to get the resettlement deal approved by parliament.

Elaine Pearson, Australia director at Human Rights Watch, said it was “disgraceful” that the agreement was “being rammed through in secret, with no public consultation despite concerns raised by Cambodian civil society”.

“Australia is undermining refugee protections by sending people to a country that is both ill-equipped to handle refugees and has an awful track record of not protecting asylum seekers,” Pearson said.

Sister Denise Coghlan, director of the Jesuit Refugee Service in Phnom Penh, said the news of the impending MOU was “stunning,” particularly because of a failure of the Cambodian government to consult with civil society groups.

She said she had not seen the MOU, but understood it to be accompanied by two other documents; an implementation guideline and another, more detailed, daily plan.

When asked if the Jesuit Refugee Service had been consulted, she said: “Absolutely not. It was a secret – it sort of came out of the blue between Julie Bishop and [Cambodian prime minister] Hun Sen [in February].”

“I didn’t expect to be consulted, and maybe because the whole thing is shrouded in secrecy. I’m not sure any civil society was consulted. It would be good to consult the refugees,” she said.

Sr Coghlan did meet with Greg Kelly, an official sent over by Australia to begin working as a counsellor at the Australian Embassy in Phnom Penh, in August.

“I presented him my reservations about the [deal] and said I was quite pessimistic, whereas he was hoping to be optimistic


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