The United Nations refugee agency today voiced serious concern over proposed new border control measures by Australia to deal with asylum seekers arriving by boat, including their transferral offshore, even if they have reached the mainland, to have their claims processed.
“If this were to happen, it would be an unfortunate precedent, being for the first time, to our knowledge, that a country with a fully functioning and credible asylum system, in the absence of anything approximating a mass influx, decides to transfer elsewhere the responsibility to handle claims made actually on the territory of the state,” the UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) said.
“This is even more worrying in the absence of any clear indications as to what might be the nature of the envisaged offshore processing arrangement,” spokesperson Jennifer Pagonis told a news briefing in Geneva. “If it is not one that meets the same high standards Australia sets for its own processes, this could be tantamount to penalizing for illegal entry.”
She stressed that the widely adhered-to practice is for signatory states to the 1951 Refugee Convention, like Australia, to grant asylum seekers access to a full and fair refugee status determination process to determine their protection needs, implemented by the state authority, with the real possibility of timely and appropriate solutions.
This excludes any possibility of refoulement (forcible return) and allows for asylum seekers to be able to live in humane, decent conditions which respect family unity while waiting for their claims to be processed and a solution found.
Many refugees have arrived in Australia by boat in recent years, originating from such countries as Iraq, Afghanistan, Pakistan, Iran and Bangladesh. Overwhelmed by the upsurge, the Government has intercepted some of them at sea or on offshore islands and sent them to Nauru or Papua New Guinea's Manus Island.
Ms. Pagonis said the agency was aware of the difficulties and shares the concerns governments face in dealing with people smuggling and managing irregular arrivals in their territories, including unauthorized boat arrivals.
“However, these proposed new measures raise some serious concerns,” she added. “In particular the stated intention that persons who land on the Australian mainland - who should normally fall under the migration act and have their claims processed in Australia - will be taken offshore for assessment of their claim, with Australia's responsibilities to bona fide refugees deflected elsewhere.”