Refugees must not be left to languish offshore, warns UN


THE United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees has warned that asylum seekers must not be held on Nauru or Manus Island for so long that they suffer psychological damage.

With the Senate today set to pass the government’s offshore processing legislation, disquiet has intensified in union and Labor circles.

ACTU president Ged Kearney was among those signing an open letter to Prime Minister Julia Gillard condemning the legislation, while Labor MP Melissa Parke told Parliament she had a ”deep sense of discomfort” about aspects of the policy.

ACTU President Ged Kearney signed an open letter to Julia Gillard condemning the government’s offshore processing legislation. Photo: Josh Robenstone

ACTU President Ged Kearney signed an open letter to Julia Gillard condemning the government’s offshore processing legislation. Photo: Josh Robenstone

The government has accepted the Houston panel’s recommendation that asylum seekers coming by boat should have ”no advantage”, so that when accepted as refugees they will wait for a settlement visa for as long as they would have waited if they had followed regular processes.

The UNHCR’s regional representative, Richard Towle, said the ”legacy” of prolonged displacement on Pacific island states had been severe psychological damage.

”So we’ve got to make sure that if people who are genuine refugees are having to wait for solutions, it’s not so long as to cause damage,” he said.

Immigration Minister Chris Bowen admitted that regular processes ”can be a long time”. He has not yet had talks with the UNHCR about the new policy.

In Parliament, Ms Parke questioned the premise that asylum seekers coming to Australia by boat should not have any advantage over others who pursued orderly migration paths, ”not least because this idea of an orderly path, or queue, is simply a myth”.

Under this principle, the detention time ”could well be indefinite because for many asylum seekers, including those coming from places like Afghanistan and Sri Lanka, there are no queues to join and no orderly UNHCR paths to safe haven”, she said.

Only Greens deputy leader Adam Bandt and independent Andrew Wilkie opposed the processing legislation in the House of Representatives. Liberal backbencher Judi Moylan abstained, saying it did not contain effective protections or any sort of timeline.

Ms Kearney said the ACTU opposed offshore processing. Australian unions had always advocated a humane approach to asylum seekers, she said. ”We are talking about human beings who should not be treated as a political football.”

Senator Doug Cameron, a Left convener, said he had a ”very heavy heart. I don’t like Manus Island, I don’t like Nauru, but we’re here because we couldn’t get an agreement on an approach that the UNHCR said was OK, and that was Malaysia.”

As the military gets ready to begin preparing the processing centres, former Defence Force chief Chris Barrie said the use of defence personnel was a travesty. ”The military shouldn’t have to do it”, he said, as a private contractor would be cheaper and more efficient.

Between the announcement on Monday and late yesterday, three boats with 205 asylum seekers have arrived. All are liable to be sent to the offshore centres. Ms Gillard repeated her strong message to asylum seekers: ”If you get on a boat … you’ll go to Nauru and PNG, not just to have your claim processed, but you will be kept there for the same amount of time that you would have waited had you stayed where you were.”