Saturday, July 13, 2013

Australia: Despite progress, UN finds faults with Australia's off-shore asylum processing centre

Adrian Edwards, Spokesperson for the UN Refugee Agency, UNHCR. Photo: UNIFEED

UN - 12 July 2013 – Despite recent improvements, conditions at an offshore processing centre currently housing 250 people seeking asylum in Australia do not meet international standards, the United Nations refugee agency said today, citing “continued and worrying shortcomings” at the facility.

“Living conditions are still harsh, processing remains slow and asylum-seekers are growing despondent over the lack of certainty about their future,” said Adrian Edwards, spokesperson for the UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR).

The agency's second report on the Manus Island Regional Processing Centre in Papua New Guinea, released today in the Australian capital, Canberra, is based on the findings of a UNHCR visit last month to assess conditions.

“The mission found improvements since its last visit in January, but current arrangements still do not meet international protection standards for the reception and treatment of asylum-seekers,” Mr. Edwards told reporters in Geneva, where UNHCR is headquartered.

Among the improvements, he cited the transfer of all children and their families to Australia itself, progress towards establishing a legal framework for processing, and some improvement in the physical facilities at the processing centre.

“However, UNHCR's inspection also revealed continued and worrying shortcomings,” said Mr. Edwards. “Freedom of movement is still extremely limited in what continues to amount to an environment of open-ended, mandatory and, in UNHCR's view, arbitrary detention.”

The team observed cramped living quarters, especially for single men housed in canvas tents. They told UNHCR that each tent accommodated four to six men and was very hot especially from late afternoon into the night. Many asylum-seekers also expressed concern about hygiene issues related to bathroom facilities and food preparation, and poor access to medical services.

“The lack of certainty among asylum-seekers over their future coupled with slow progress in establishing effective processing arrangements is contributing to pervasive frustration and despondency,” noted Mr. Edwards. “Left unresolved, this can increase psycho-social harm for those who are affected.”

With respect to the legal rights of asylum-seekers, UNHCR's team observed that, while refugee status determination processing is set to start in the near future, changes to Papua New Guinea laws and regulations are required to ensure a fair and efficient process for all asylum-seekers in the country.

“Overall, UNHCR considers that the combination of a tough physical environment, restricted legal regime, and slow processing mean that existing arrangements still do not meet the required international protection standards, nor the terms of the Memorandum of Understanding agreed between the two Governments in establishing the Regional Processing Centre,” Mr. Edwards said.

UNHCR is not a signatory to the bilateral agreement between Australia and Papua New Guinea relating to the processing of asylum-seekers.

“Our position has always been for all asylum-seekers arriving into Australian territory, by whatever means, and wherever, to be given access to a full and efficient refugee status determination process in Australia. This would be consistent with general practice, and in line with international refugee law,” said Mr. Edwards.