Delays to processing asylum seekers causing trauma - UNHCR | Pacific Beat

Delays to processing asylum seekers causing trauma - UNHCR

Delays to processing asylum seekers causing trauma - UNHCR

Updated 9 November 2012, 10:27 AEDT

The Australian Representitive for the United Nations High Commission for Refugees says the longer it takes to start processing asylum seekers on Nauru the more trauma it will cause them.

Authorities are yet to start processing any of the refugee claims of the almost 7,000 people who have arrived in Australia by boat since the government announced it would restart offshore processing, inlcuding the 370 living in temporary facilites on Nauru.

The Australian Government had hoped restarting offshore processing would go some way to stopping people trying to reach Australia by boat.

Presenter: Stephanie March

Speaker: Richard Towle, Australian Representitive, United Nations High Commission for Refugees

TOWLE: The founding definition of a refugee is somebody who is actually out of their country of nationality and because of fear of persecution or fear of suffering human rights violations they don't feel able to go back. So by definition you have to be outside your own country to be even considered as a refugee. There's no prospect of applying for refugee status in your own country.
MARCH: That's why people end up trying to get on boats to come to Australia or go to Indonesia or Malaysia?
TOWLE: Well if your house is burning and you have to get out, you need to go to a place where you can find safety and protection, so that crudely speaking is what refugee protection is about.
MARCH: That said I suppose that means that there will always be this issue of people moving around the world trying to seek refuge in different places, it's not something that you can actually stop, it's something that just has to be managed?
TOWLE: Absolutely refugee movement like broader human movement you cannot stop it, you can manage it at best, and when it comes to refugees they are a particular form of forced migrant whose very special needs require the institution of asylum and protection to look after what is happening for them. And I think certainly in Australia there's often a confusion between regular migration and economic migration and people who are fleeing for genuine reasons related to their physical and human safety. 
MARCH: The Australian government has adopted this technique that is known as screening out, whereby they will interview someone when they first arrive, and if they don't say that they are claiming asylum or that they are a refugee, they're getting sent back to Sri Lanka. Is that something that the UNHCR has concerns about?
TOWLE: In principle there's no obligation on a state to put someone through a refugee status process if they don't indicate any reasons whatsoever for a need of protection, so people need to express in some shape or form a desire for help and protection. it can be in words or in actions, in writing or orally. Now if somebody arrives and doesn't make any reference or inference in relation to protection needs then there's no reason why that person should be allowed to remain in the territory. So at face value what has happened in relation to some Sri Lankan people coming to Australia is not objectionable, but I think what the most important question for us is what is the process that people are put through to make that decision. And we are discussing this with the Australian government to get a better sense of what kind of questions our interviews take place at this moment. But quite clearly if somone doesn't want to claim refugee protection nobody can force them. 
MARCH: There's been an increase in the number of protests occurring on Nauru and it seems a lot of them are driven by asylum seekers who are concerned that their refugee claims haven't even begun to be processed. Is the UNHCR concerned about the fact that the Australian government seems to be delaying processing for everyone who's arrived after August the 13th in Australia? 
TOWLE: Well the first comment I would make on that is we don't support hunger strikes in any shape or form, we think that people need in these situations notwithstanding the frustrations that they might face that they have to take care of themselves, the hunger strikes and protests don't achieve anything. The second point is that underlying hunger strikes we often find a sense of frustration that we're not fully aware of the situation in Nauru, but clearly delays for people, indefinite forms of detention as it appears for people in Australia and Nauru without any clarity or certainty as to when they might have their claims assessed does cause a serious degree of frustration, and if people have underlying psycho-social trauma and issues it can quickly exacerbate those. So our experience in the past with the Pacific Solution as it was prior to 2007 is that delays in an indefinite detention context and a suspension of processing is a rather difficult and problematic cocktail of ingredients. 
MARCH: Do you think that even though the government has this no advantage policy whereby people may be kept on Nauru for many years, if they just started processing the claims, even if people still don't know when they'd be leaving, that might go some way to possibly appeasing people's concerns and the behaviour on Nauru?
TOWLE: We believe that it's sensible to begin processing of all people as quickly as possible, whether that's in Australia or in Nauru or any other place. Suspension causes greater operational difficulties later on, it adds to the trauma for people involved, and at some point it starts to undermine people's ability to have certainty and determine what is in their best interests, whether they're going to remain or to leave. So for many reasons we think that people as a matter of principle are entitled to have a fair and expeditious assessment of their refugee claims, whether that's in Australia or Nauru is not the question. They have to be fair and accurate and taken place in a timely way.

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