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UN Agency Cautions Australia Against Asylum Obligation Breach

Jan 13 2014 (IPS) - The United Nations refugee agency has cautioned Australian authorities about potential breaches of international obligations following reports of asylum-seeker boats being forced back to Indonesia.

The office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) has been seeking details about recent media reports of the Australian navy forcing boats, presumed to be carrying asylum-seekers, back to Indonesian waters, the agency’s spokesperson Adrian Edwards said in briefing notes released 10th January.

The agency said it was also looking into reports on Australia’s plans to buy and provide vessels for future pushbacks, calling such practices “potentially dangerous.”

It recommended that efforts be made to strengthen regional cooperation on the basis of solidarity and responsibility sharing when dealing with asylum issues.

“UNHCR would be concerned by any policy or practice that involved pushing asylum-seeker boats back at sea without a proper consideration of individual needs for protection,” Edwards said, noting that such approaches would potentially place Australia in breach of Refugee Convention and other international law obligations.

The comments came amid a series of media reports that asylum-seeker boats had been forcibly returned to Indonesia.

During the past weekend, Australia’s ABC quoted Indonesian police as saying that a second boat had been forced back to Indonesia by the Australian navy, shortly after the first case made the news around Christmas.

UNHCR has repeatedly expressed its concerns since Australia adopted strict asylum policies last year, including the transfer of asylum-seekers to Nauru and Papua New Guinea for processing.

In November, the agency found that the asylum-seekers transferred from Australia to processing centres were living in arbitrary detention and in conditions that did not meet international standards.

Australia is expected to accept around 9,000 UNHCR-referred refugees within a broader humanitarian intake of 20,000 in 2013-14, the agency’s data showed. In 2012-13, the country increased its annual humanitarian intake from 13,750 to 20,000.

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