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Australia’s offshore processing of asylum seekers arriving by boat has caused “extensive, avoidable suffering for too long” and should end immediately, according to an extraordinary statement today from the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, Filippo Grandi.

Reluctantly endorsing the relocation of all refugees held on Manus Island and Nauru to the United States, even those with close family members in Australia, Grandi called Australia’s refusal to resettle these people “contrary to the fundamental principles of family unity and refugee protection, and to common decency”.

The statement arises as US courts seek to interpret and implement President Trump’s visa ban on refugees and travellers without “close” family ties there. Meanwhile the US has reached its annual refugee intake, and progress remains uncertain on a bilateral deal whereby the US agreed to resettle a number of refugees transferred from Australia to Papua New Guinea and Nauru.
UNHCR had worked with Australia and the US on their relocation, Grandi said, on the understanding that vulnerable refugees with close family ties in Australia would ultimately be allowed to settle there. “UNHCR has recently been informed by Australia that it refuses to accept even these refugees,” the statement said. “Their only option is to remain where they are, relocate to Cambodia or to be transferred to the United States.”

PNG, Nauru and Cambodia are “wholly inappropriate and do not meet international standards” for protecting the refugees and asylum seekers transferred offshore by Australia since 2013. Four years on, some of these 2,000 refugees and asylum seekers have serious medical conditions, or have undergone traumatic experiences, including sexual violence.

“There is no doubt these vulnerable people, already subject to four years of punishing conditions, should be reunited with their families in Australia. This is the humane and reasonable thing to do,” Grandi said.

“To avoid prolonging their ordeal, UNHCR has no other choice but to endorse the relocation of all refugees on Papua New Guinea and Nauru to the United States, even those with close family members in Australia,” Grandi’s statement said.

While acknowledging Australia’s proud humanitarian tradition and endorsing the need to save lives at sea, Grandi stated that “there is a fundamental contradiction in saving people at sea only to mistreat them on land”.

“At a time of record levels of displacement globally, it is crucial that all States offer protection to survivors of war and persecution, and not outsource their responsibilities to others,” Grandi said.

Responding to the statement, the Director of the Kaldor Centre, Professor Jane McAdam, said: “The significance of this cannot be overstated.  That the High Commissioner himself has commented on these policies, and in such strong terms, is a sign of the gravity of the situation. All the evidence shows that refugees have much better settlement outcomes and integration prospects when they are united with their families, rather than suffering the distress and trauma of separation.

“The High Commissioner encapsulates the fundamental contradiction of Australia’s approach – that to save people at sea, the government mistreats and neglects them on land.  Ever since Australia recommenced offshore processing in 2012, experts have argued that the conditions in Nauru and Papua New Guinea make them unsuitable countries for the permanent settlement of refugees.  Countless reports by the UN and other international bodies, and incidents such as the killing of Reza Barati on Manus Island and assaults on other refugees, highlight why these countries are unsafe and why long-term prospects of integration are unrealistic.”

Incoming Acting Director of the Kaldor Centre, Professor Guy S Goodwin-Gill said: “Childhood, once lost, is never recovered. Family life, as Australia well knows from decades of experience, is central to successful settlement and integration. This is practical politics, not just a matter of international law. But the law does matter, for while the government can contract out services, it cannot contract out responsibility, whether for rescue at sea, disembarkation, treatment or the protection of rights.

“Protection is worth recalling, particularly as Australia is currently seeking a place on the UN Human Rights Council. But Australia also has an opportunity now to play an important and influential role internationally in the development of global compacts on refugees and migration, and in constructing a more predictable, protective and manageable framework for the movement of people between States. It may think it easy to dismiss criticism of past practices out of hand, but influence depends on credibility, and credibility demands transparency and accountability in democratic society, no less than the rule of law.”

Kaldor Centre Senior Research Associate Madeline Gleeson, author of Offshore: Behind the Wire on Manus and Nauru, said: “As the centre on Manus Island is shut down and processing there winds up, Australia’s international obligations to ensure people are treated properly and find durable solutions for every refugee sent to Papua New Guinea continue. UNHCR has consistently maintained that Papua New Guinea, Nauru and Cambodia are wholly inappropriate places for refugees to be settled. As such, Australia cannot claim that its duty has been met and walk away until alternative arrangements have been made for every refugee to settle in safety in dignity, in an appropriate country.”

For further media inquiries, please contact Lauren Martin on 0407 393 070.

You can find more background on our Offshore Processing project page.

The Kaldor Centre plays a vital role in developing legal, sustainable and humane solutions for displaced people around the world.