United Nations rejects Australia's off-shore processing plans | Asia Pacific

United Nations rejects Australia's off-shore processing plans

United Nations rejects Australia's off-shore processing plans

Updated 24 August 2012, 22:35 AEST

The United Nations refugee agency has taken a hard-line against the Australian Government's new asylum-seeker offshore processing arrangement.

The UNHCR says it will monitor the policy of sending asylum seekers to Nauru and Papua New Guinea's Manus Island.

But it's refused to work with the government to process or resettle those people.

Correspondent: Alexandra Kirk

Speakers: Richard Towle, UNHCR Regional Representative for Australia; David Manne, Refugee and Immigration Legal Centre

KIRK: The United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees didn't like the Howard government's Pacific Solution and now it's given the thumbs down to the Gillard Government's version.

TOWLE: These are efforts by Australia to resolve a domestic issue by transferring people to another jurisdiction or jurisdictions in the region.

KIRK: The UNHCR is refusing to work with the Government to process the refugee claims of asylum seekers sent to Nauru and Manus Island.

The refugee agency's regional representative Rick Towle has told the Government his organisation will monitor things at arms length but it won't be help administer the Pacific Solution Mark 2, as he explained on our sister program, The World Today.

TOWLE: We believe primarily that this a matter for Australia's responsibilities under the Refugee Convention working with two other countries that are also convention states.

We do not see that UNHCR has an active role to play in those arrangements. Australia may choose to transfer physically people to other jurisdictions but we believe that under international law very clearly Australia is not absolved of its legal responsibilities to protect people through all aspects of the processing and solutions.

KIRK: The expert panel which advise the Government, headed by former Defence Chief Angus Houston, said the UNHCR's involvement with registrations, processing and resettlement of refugees from Nauru and other regional processing centres would be, quote, "highly desirable" and should be actively pursued as a matter of urgency.

But Mr Towle's outlined many concerns the UNHCR has about the Government's new offshore processing regime.

TOWLE: We are dealing with very vulnerable populations, particularly women and children, unaccompanied minors and to try and manage all of their needs in a protection appropriate way in remote places, particularly in the Pacific, has proven to be challenging in the past and we have no doubt that it will be very challenging again in the future.

KIRK: PM sought an interview with the Immigration Minister, Chris Bowen. His office said he was unavailable.

The minister issued a detailed statement criticising the Opposition's stance on increasing Australia's humanitarian intake.

In response to the UNHCR's declaration today, the Minister's office said it wasn't unexpected, pointing to the Minister's comment last week that while the UN will want to provide some feedback, the Government's operation doesn't require UNHCR involvement in processing on Nauru or Manus Island and he wasn't envisaging it being involved. But Mr Bowen says he'll continue to consult with the UNHCR.

Refugee lawyer David Manne, who last year won a High Court challenge, scuttling the Government's planned Malaysian people swap deal, says the UN is right not to cooperate because Australia's responsibility is to protect asylum seekers, not send them offshore.

MANNE: It's a matter of very serious concern that neither the expert panel nor Parliament seemed to have consulted with the UN Refugee Agency about Pacific Solution Mark 2 before embarking upon it.

I mean this despite the fact that the UNHCR are widely accepted as having a lead role in the establishment of a regional protection system and no consultation despite the fact the panel stated that it would be highly desirable for the UNHRC to play a central role in arrangements in Nauru and Papua New Guinea, including on key issues like registration, processing and resettlement.

KIRK: Mr Manne isn't saying whether he plans to launch another challenge but is concerned about the potential lack of legal safeguards for people sent to Nauru and Manus Island.

MANNE: It's also worth noting that the new laws contemplate consulting with the UN Refugee Agency first before the Parliament designated a country to send people to but the plans for Pacific Solution Mark 2 seem well underway already and this is of really major concern.

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