The world's top body for the protection of refugees has highlighted "formidable challenges" for Australia's draconian and controversial plan to settle asylum-seekers in Papua New Guinea, which it says has "significant shortcomings."
The plan was announced last week by new Prime Minister Kevin Rudd and was seen as an attempt to win over blue-collar voters before this year's election. It horrified human rights advocates, with Malcolm Fraser, a former prime minister, calling it “an abdication of our basic humanity”.
The so-called "boat people" - those who arrive in the country after long and extremely dangerous trips in unsafe vessels - will not have their asylum claims heard in Australia, but at processing centres on the neighbouring island where, if the claim is accepted, they will be resettled.
And today the UN High Commission on Refugees (UNHCR) wrote of the new plan in a statement: "UNHCR is troubled by the current absence of adequate protection standards and safeguards for asylum seekers and refugees in Papua New Guinea (PNG). Australia’s Regional Resettlement Arrangement (RRA) with the Government of PNG raises serious, and so far unanswered, protection questions.
"There are currently significant shortcomings in the legal framework for receiving and processing asylum-seekers from Australia. These include a lack of national capacity and expertise in processing, and poor physical conditions within open-ended, mandatory and arbitrary detention settings (in PNG)."
The commission did recognise Australia as a "generous resettlement country," and said: "We recognise that these measures take place against a backdrop of rising arrivals by people taking exploitative, dangerous sea journeys – including disturbing numbers of families, unaccompanied children and other vulnerable individuals."
Asylum-seekers – who have been arriving in record numbers this year – were sent to Papua New Guinea’s remote Manus Island between 2001 and 2007, but only to have their refugee claims processed. Abandoned by Mr Rudd in 2008, the policy was resurrected last year by his Labor successor, Julia Gillard.
Now Mr Rudd, who deposed Ms Gillard last month, has gone further – a step some believe contravenes the UN refugee convention, which Australia has signed.
Papua New Guinea has poor healthcare, high unemployment, a dubious human rights record and its capital, Port Moresby, has one of the world’s worst crime rates.
The UNHCR noted the difficulties specific to the nation, writing: "From UNHCR’s first-hand experience in supporting Melanesian (people from the Pacific islands to Australia's north-east) and non-Melanesian refugees for nearly 30 years, it is clear that sustainable integration of non-Melanesian refugees in the socio-economic and cultural life of PNG will raise formidable challenges and protection questions."
Earlier this week, a whistleblower who worked at Manus Island - which will be expanded under the new system - condemned it as unfit to "serve as a dog kennel," and alleged, among other things, rape and sexual abuse between asylum seekers with the full knowledge of staff.
Immigration Minister Tony Burke said it was the first time he’d heard the most serious claims, telling the programme: “I need to hear the very specific allegations, I need to make sure they’re properly investigated.
“If the implementation of different policies needs to be reviewed as a matter of that, then that needs to occur.”