Australia’s Deal With PNG May Harm Asylum Seekers, UN Says

Australia’s new policy of sending refugees to detention camps in Papua New Guinea may cause physical and mental harm to the asylum seekers, the United Nations said.

“There are currently significant shortcomings in the legal framework for receiving and processing asylum seekers from Australia” in Papua New Guinea, the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees said in an e-mailed statement today. “These include a lack of national capacity and expertise in processing, and poor physical conditions within open-ended, mandatory and arbitrary detention settings.”

Prime Minister Kevin Rudd, who must hold elections by the end of November, last week toughened his government’s stance against asylum seekers by announcing Australia would refuse entry to refugees arriving by boat and send them to Papua New Guinea. The failure to cut the number of asylum seekers attempting to reach Australia by sea has eroded support for his ruling Labor party.

Asylum seekers from war-torn countries including Afghanistan and Pakistan have used Indonesia as a stepping stone to Australia, hiring people smugglers to ferry them in unseaworthy boats.

Since 2008, more than 1,000 asylum seekers have died at sea, with 48,000 people arriving on Australian soil on almost 800 “illegal” boats, opposition leader Tony Abbott said yesterday, announcing plans to let Australia’s military lead efforts to combat people smuggling should the coalition win government.

Sending asylum seekers to Papua New Guinea was “a very hardline decision,” Rudd said July 19. The agreement with its neighbour didn’t put a limit on the number of people who could be sent there, he said.

The UN was “troubled by the current absence of adequate protection standards and safeguards for asylum seekers and refugees in Papua New Guinea,” it said in today’s statement. Conditions in the camps “can be harmful to the physical and psycho-social well-being of transferees, particularly families and children,” it said.

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