Re-opening of offshore detention camps in Australia could lead to rights violations – UN

17 August 2012

A senior United Nations official today warned that the re-opening of offshore detention centres for migrants and asylum-seekers arriving in Australia by sea could result in violations of human rights, and called on its Government to rethink the country’s asylum and migration policy.

According to media reports, the Australian Parliament passed an amendment on Thursday that would allow the re-opening of offshore detention centres for migrants and asylum-seekers arriving in Australia by sea. The amendment was passed following recommendations from a panel of asylum experts.

The UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, Navi Pillay, welcomes efforts by the Australian Government to institute more comprehensive cooperation on migration, a spokesperson, Xabier Celaya, noted, but is concerned that offshore detention centres would give way to indefinite detention putting human rights at risk.

“The High Commissioner reiterates her call for a rethink of Australia’s asylum and migration policy, urging political leaders to take a principled and courageous stand on migration and to break an ingrained political habit of demonising migrants and asylum-seekers,” Mr. Celaya, of the Office of the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR), added in a media briefing in Geneva.

“Because of the drastic impact of immigration detention, including on the physical and mental health of those detained, the United Nations human rights mechanisms have emphasized that it should always be applied as a measure of last resort, only permissible for the shortest period of time and only when no less restrictive measure is available,” Mr. Celaya said, noting that there is no empirical evidence indicating that detention centres deter irregular immigration or discourage people from seeking asylum.

“The desperation that causes people to embark on these perilous journeys in the first place will almost certainly remain, especially in the absence of effective and rights-based regional cooperation on migration and asylum,” he said.

OHCHR has had long-standing concerns about Australia’s use of a mandatory detention regime for migrants and asylum-seekers. According to international human rights law, time limits must be placed on immigration detention and any detention should only take place as a result of an individual determination.

In May last year, while on a visit to the country, Ms. Pillay said the mandatory detention policy has for many years cast a shadow over Australia’s human rights record. “Thousands of men, women and – most disturbingly of all – children have been held in Australian detention centres for prolonged periods, even though they have committed no crime,” she stated during her visit.

In a press briefing in Geneva, a spokesperson of the Office of the UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), Adrian Edwards, said the proposed amendments raise complex legal, protection, policy and operational issues.

“UNHCR’s preference remains an arrangement which would allow asylum-seekers arriving by boat into Australian territory to be processed in Australia. This would be consistent with general practice,” Mr. Edwards said.

“We do not want to see a return to lengthy delays in remote island centres for asylum seekers and refugees before durable solutions are found,” he added.


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