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.
People smugglers telling ‘every lie you can think of’ over PNG
The number of people confirmed dead in the latest boat tragedy off Indonesia rose to 13 overnight as Home Affairs Minister Jason Clare accused people smugglers of lying to asylum seekers about Australia’s ‘PNG solution’.
Mr Clare said he had heard reports that people smugglers were telling would-be asylum seekers they should get on a boat now, before the first plane left for Manus Island.
Prime Minister Kevin Rudd has announced that all asylum seekers arriving to Australia by boat will be sent to PNG for processing, and that people found to be refugees would be resettled there.
More than 700 asylum seekers have arrived in Australian waters since Mr Rudd announced the PNG policy, and yesterday the PM warned that thousands of people a year could drown at sea if action was not taken to deter them from embarking on the perilous journey to Australia.
Today Australian authorities confirmed the arrivals of two more boats, carrying 125 people, off Christmas Island on Wednesday.
Speaking in Perth, Mr Rudd reiterated his promise to improve standards for asylum seekers on Manus Island.
He says Australia took note of concerns expressed by the UNHCR in an earlier report.
“We had received a report, noted on it and together with PNG we would seek to take all the appropriate steps to lift the standards that are currently applying in Manus,” Mr Rudd said.
“I think that’s the right thing to do, this takes a bit of time and we’re going to take our time to do it and make sure we do it thoroughly.”
Indonesian defence minister talks up ties during talks in Perth
Meanwhile Indonesia’s defence minister Purnomo Yusgiantoro has dismissed concerns that Indonesia was not adequately briefed by Australia on the PNG asylum seeker deal.
Speaking at a joint media conference with his Australian counterpart Stephen Smith in Perth, Mr Purnomo said the deal was part of bilateral cooperation between Australia and PNG, and also a “domestic issue”.
Cooperation between Canberra and Jakarta on the issue of asylum seekers remained strong, he said.
“We know that Australia and PNG and also Nauru have the bilateral cooperation to see how you can solve the asylum seekers, but really that is [a part of] bilateral cooperation between you and PNG, and you and Nauru,” he said.
He said Indonesian officials worked closely with Australian officials on the issue of asylum seekers at several levels.
“We have our officials in Canberra in the RCC [Rescue Control Coordination Centre], under the umbrella of AMSA, and also your people in our office. Both of them have very good liaison,” he said.
“Really, we don’t want to involve [ourselves] in the domestic policy issue in your country.”
His comments came after an Indonesian opposition figure said Indonesian MPs had complained that Mr Rudd did not consult with Jakarta before announcing the deal to resettle asylum seekers in Papua New Guinea.
Tantowi Yahya, a member of Indonesia’s Foreign Affairs Commission, said most of the group’s 35 members had complained about Indonesia not being consulted on Australia’s policy shift.
“Several government officials and politicians like myself protested and then your government responded by calling the president,” he said.Source: ABC News – United Nations refugee agency warns Australia its asylum policy may breach international law
- People smugglers hit hard by Australia’s Papua New Guinea solution (craighill.net)
- United Nations refugee agency warns Australia its asylum policy may breach international law (abc.net.au)
- ‘They are not our enemy,’ Abbott told (theage.com.au)
- UN pokes holes in PNG plan (smh.com.au)
- Burke flags Nauru and PNG investigation (news.smh.com.au)
- Sixteen boats arrive since new PNG deal (bigpondnews.com)
- 1267 boat people arrive since PNG deal (radionz.co.nz)
- Australia’s Message to Asylum-Seekers: Go Away (world.time.com)
- We won’t flinch, Rudd on asylum seekers (bigpondnews.com)
- UN condemns Australia asylum deal with PNG (aljazeera.com)
- PNG opposition lashes asylum seeker plan (bigpondnews.com)