Australia on Friday said it was on track to send asylum-seekers to impoverished Papua New Guinea despite the United Nations raising concerns about the country’s ability to handle refugees.
In a letter to Canberra, United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees Antonio Guterres said it was not clear to his agency that the transfer of boatpeople to PNG was “fully appropriate”.
It was the UNHCR’s assessment that PNG “does not have the legal safeguards nor the competence or capacity to shoulder alone the responsibility of protecting and processing asylum-seekers transferred by Australia”, he wrote.
But a spokesman for Immigration minister Chris Bowen said asylum-seekers were set to arrive on PNG’s Manus Island within weeks.
“We have consulted with and tabled correspondence by the UNHCR – and as always, we take on board issues they have raised,” the spokesman said.
“We continue to work with the PNG government on implementation and expect the first transfers… occurring in coming weeks,” he added.
Australia announced a tough new policy for boatpeople in August under which they will be sent to the tiny Pacific nation of Nauru or Manus Island in PNG while their claims for refugee status are assessed.
The policy is designed to deter people from making the dangerous boat journey to Australia after scores of deaths en route, but has so far failed to stem the record flow of arrivals this year.
More than 4,000 boatpeople have turned up since the policy was announced, with vessels arriving most days, the last bringing 53 people on Friday.
Australia’s Human Rights Commission president Gillian Triggs said asylum-seekers she spoke to said the policy would not have deterred them from coming to Australia, but they were worried about what happened after arriving.
Triggs recently returned from Christmas Island, Australia’s remote Indian Ocean immigration processing centre, and said most of the people she spoke to were grateful for the facilities and their treatment.
“But their enormous mental anxiety lay with the fear that they would be transferred to Nauru, that their assessment would not take place for some months and would not be over for many years,” she told ABC radio.
The new policy was introduced after a flood of boatpeople to Australia this year – with more than 11,736 arriving so far – many of them Afghans, Iraqis and Iranians who have paid people-smugglers to ferry them from Indonesia.