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UNITED NATIONS, Aug 30 2012 (IPS) - Australia’s recent decision to move asylum seekers to offshore detention facilities has alarmed human rights organisations.
“Re-opening offshore detention centres could result in human rights violations, including potentially indefinite detention,” Pia Oberoi, advisor with the Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights (HCHR) told IPS, despite that international human rights law requires that time limits be placed on immigration detention and that any detention should decided according to individual situations.
A spokesperson for the Australian government told IPS, “The government has been clear that under offshore processing arrangements, asylum seekers transferred to (detention facilities on) Nauru and Manus Island(s) will be processed in accordance with international obligations.” An interactive map of the area can be found here.
Even though some migrants coming to Australia by boat are not entitled to make a valid claim under the Refugee Convention, many are still protected under human rights law, such as victims of trafficking and stateless persons, including protection from refoulement.
The principal of non-refoulement in international law, specifically refugee law, concerns protecting refugees from being returned to places where their lives or freedoms could be threatened.
“The principle of non-refoulement has extra-territorial scope, meaning that Australia’s non-refoulement obligations are engaged when asylum seekers and migrants come under its jurisdiction or effective control, even if they have been intercepted on the high seas,” said Oberoi.
The decision to reopen offshore detention facilities was intended by the Australian government to deter future asylum seekers from coming by sea, a dangerous venture often attempted in undersized, overcrowded vessels. More than 100 asylum seekers have drowned attempting to reach Australia in 2012.
“Through regional processing and increasing the humanitarian intake, Australia is aiming to put an end to the tragic consequences of dangerous boat journeys by asylum seekers, and improve the prospects of those wishing to seek asylum in Australia,” said the government spokesperson.
But Oberoi disagreed with this approach, explaining that “there is no empirical evidence that immigration detention deters irregular migration, or discourages people from seeking asylum”.
In a further effort to attract immigrants to apply through regular immigration channels, the Australian government has increased the country’s intake of natural migrants this year from 13,750 to 20,000, and has committed to taking in to 27,000 by 2017.
Ben Farrell from the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) in Canberra told IPS that UNHCR would prefer “an arrangement which would allow asylum-seekers arriving by boat into Australian territory to be processed in Australia”.
Farrell said that the UNHCR believed in the efficacy of cooperative approaches in the region, noting that such strategies had the potential to grant asylum seekers protection without having to risk dangerous journeys across the ocean.
The policy of offshore detention was abandoned in 2007 by the Australian government heeding complaints that refugees were spending months on the islands before resettlement.
In 2011 a deal with Malaysia was planned whereby unprocessed migrants from Australia were transferred to Malaysia in exchange for processed refugees. However, the deal was rejected by the Australian High Court given that Malaysia is not a signatory to the 1951 Refugee Convention.
“For a scheme like the one proposed with Malaysia to be legal, there must be no real risk of breach of Australia’s international human rights obligations and the Refugee Convention in the treatment of asylum seekers and migrants throughout the process in both Australia and Malaysia,” said Oberoi.
Australia is the UNHCR’s largest resettlement country on a per capita basis.
This month, 650 refugees have been picked up trying to reach Australia by boat. The annual number of arrivals by boat represents about two percent of Australia’s total migration.
As of March 2011, the average time spent in detention for asylum seekers arriving in Australia was 213 days.
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