New Australia asylum policy 'troubling': UNHCR

Rescuers assist a survivor on arrival at the wharf of Cidaun, West Java on 24 July 2013 after an Australia-bound boat carrying asylum-seekers sank off the Indonesian coast Australia has seen a spike in the number of asylum seekers arriving by boat

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Australia's new asylum policy lacks "adequate protection standards for asylum seekers", the UN says.

Under the new policy, boatpeople headed to Australia will have their claims processed by Papua New Guinea (PNG), and be resettled there if successful.

However, the UN High Commission for Refugees said there were "significant shortcomings" in PNG's legal system for processing asylum seekers.

Thousands of asylum-seekers try to reach Australia by boat every year.

"Australia's Regional Resettlement Arrangement (RRA) with the Government of PNG raises serious, and so far unanswered, protection questions," the UNHCR said in its first review of Australia's new policy.

"UNHCR is troubled by the current absence of adequate protection standards and safeguards for asylum seekers and refugees in Papua New Guinea," it said.

PNG was currently not prepared for processing asylum seekers, due to "a lack of national capacity and expertise in processing, and poor physical conditions within open-ended, mandatory and arbitrary detention settings," it said.

'Legal challenges'

The UNHCR statement added that Australia's new policy faced "significant policy, legal and operational challenges".

Australia's irregular maritime arrivals

  • 2010: 134 boats carrying 6,535 passengers
  • 2011: 69 boats, carrying 4,565 passengers
  • 2012: 278 boats carrying 17,202 passengers
  • 2013 (figures up to 16 July): 218 boats carrying 15,182 passengers

Figures from Australia's Department of Immigration; passenger numbers exclude crew

UNHCR representation Richard Towle told Australian broadcaster ABC that "the act of transfer physically does not divest... Australia of the responsibility for ongoing protection".

Prime Minister Kevin Rudd announced the new asylum policy last week, ahead of polls expected to be announced soon.

He said the arrangement would send "a very clear message to people-smugglers to stop sending people by boat to Australia".

However, critics have accused Australia of avoiding responsibility and passing on its problem to a developing nation.

Australia has experienced a sharp increase in the number of asylum seekers arriving by boat this year.

Several boats have sunk in recent months, killing passengers.

Meanwhile, Immigration Minister Tony Burke has visited Manus Island in PNG following allegations that abuses were taking place at the off-shore processing centre on the island.

A former security manager, Rod St George, said that some detainees had been raped and assaulted with the knowledge of the centre's employees.

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