Wednesday November 14, 2012
UN rights chief warns Australia on refugees
SYDNEY - The UN's top human rights official Wednesday described a hunger strike by refugees banished by Australia to the remote Pacific as a sign of the "unbearable conditions" of their detention.
Navi Pillay, the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights, said she had been "alarmed" to learn that asylum-seekers being held under Australia's offshore processing laws on the tiny island of Nauru were starving themselves.
"That, I think, is an indication of the unbearable conditions under which they're being held, the uncertainty of their future," Pillay told the Australian Broadcasting Corporation from Jakarta.
Australia has been criticised by the UN and human rights groups for sending asylum-seekers to Nauru in a bid to deter refugees from paying people-smugglers for passage from Southeast Asia.
The punitive policy was rolled out in August in response to a historic influx of smuggling boats. Since January 1, 14,947 passengers have arrived - more than double the previous annual record.
Pillay said she appreciated Australia "has an obligation to its own citizens to protect them from unwanted or excessive migration" but noted there was a double standard when it came to European migrants or those arriving by air.
"They're not held in detention. They... could stay in homes and so on while they are being processed,' she said.
A majority of the 400 asylum-seekers on Nauru were reported to be on hunger strike earlier this week by refugee activists, though most called off their action on Tuesday following news of an Amnesty International visit next week.
The detainees are protesting against the spartan conditions in the hot, dusty and remote Nauru camp, where they live in tents and have limited access to legal and humanitarian assistance.
They also want assurances over their future, with Canberra warning it would be months before their asylum claims were looked at and offering no guidance on how long they will be detained under the harsh new "no advantage" approach.
The government hopes the "no advantage" stance will deter asylum-seekers by making clear to them that they will not be able to queue jump or bypass normal visa procedures by arriving illegally by boat.
"I fear that this is another road to indefinite detention," Pillay said. "Detention of asylum-seekers should be the last resort, not the first, definitely not indefinite."
The UN commissioner said there was "still a chance" for Canberra to ensure proper protections and warned that it would be a "blight on Australia's good human rights record if it doesn't respect the rights of asylum-seekers".
"I obviously appreciate the prime minister's goal to end people-smuggling but feel that the way (Australia is going) about it is seriously placing at risk the human rights of people such as those being held in Nauru," she said. - AFP