UN agency will ask Australia to change off-shore refugee processing legislation

12 May 2006

The United Nations refugee agency said today that it will seek changes in new proposed Australian legislation that would transfer people arriving illegally by boat from the mainland to such remote Pacific islands as Nauru to process their asylum claims.

The 1951 Refugee Convention, which Australia has ratified and Nauru has not, stipulates that signatory governments should cooperate with the agency, UNHCR, in its supervision of the Convention’s implementation. This was always taken to mean that a country drafting legislation affecting refugees would consult the agency at an early stage, UNHCR spokeswoman Jennifer Pagonis said at a briefing at the UN complex in Geneva.

Nonetheless, the agency accepted an invitation to make a formal submission to the Australian Senate’s Legal and Constitutional References and Legislation Committee by the 22 May deadline, she said. The Committee is scheduled to report back to Parliament by 13 June.

Ms. Pagonis noted that the legislation is complicated and contains a number of issues that need to be clarified, including such unfamiliar concepts as “designated unauthorized arrivals” and “transitory persons.”

The agency’s concerns include having the same standards for processing in third countries as Australia maintains at home, she said. These standards include allowing them to live in humane conditions and in family units, and not coercing the asylum-seekers into returning home to persecution.

Many refugees have arrived in Australia by boat in recent years, originating from Iraq, Afghanistan, Pakistan, Iran and Bangladesh. The Australian Government has begun to intercept some of them at sea or on offshore islands and to send them to Nauru, or to Manus Island in Convention signatory Papua New Guinea.

UNHCR said today that it had had a bad experience with the arrangements set in place in Nauru in 2001 after more than 400 mainly Afghan asylum-seekers were rescued by a Norwegian freighter, the Tampa, from an Indonesian ferry. Australia sent them to Nauru where they were kept “in detention-like conditions for a long period of time with no timely solutions for the refugees, who suffered considerable mental hardship,” it said.

 

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