The U.N. refugee agency is expressing concern about proposed new measures by the Australian government to tighten its border control to deal with new boat arrivals. Under the proposed new legislation, it says all people arriving by boat would be transferred offshore to have their asylum claims processed.
The U.N. refugee agency says it has not seen the proposed legislation, but says a press statement from Australia's immigration ministry outlining the main aspects of the new policy raises many concerns.
UNHCR Spokeswoman Jennifer Pagonis says under the new legislation anyone arriving by boat on the mainland or in the so-called offshore excised area would have his or her asylum claim processed offshore.
In 2001, the Australian Government designated certain of its island-territories as 'excised offshore places.' This means, in most cases any unauthorized person who arrives in one of these territories will not be able to apply for an Australian visa. This was one of a series of measures the Australian government took to deter human trafficking.
Pagonis says the UNHCR shares Australia's concerns regarding people smuggling and understands the difficulties of managing irregular arrivals in its territories. But she says the proposed offshore processing procedure is worrisome.
"... it would be an unfortunate precedent because it would be the first time to our knowledge that a country with a fully functioning and incredible asylum system, in the absence of anything approximating a mass influx, decides to transfer elsewhere the responsibility to handle claims made actually on the territory of the state," he said.
Pagonis says not knowing how the offshore processing procedure would be handled is of particular concern.
She says if it is not done in conformity with the 1951 Refugee Convention, asylum seekers arriving by boat might not get a fair hearing. And some genuine refugees might not get the international protection to which they are entitled. She says the asylum seeker might be penalized for entering the country illegally.
Pagonis says a recent UNHCR study belies common perceptions that Australia is swamped with asylum seekers. "In the last asylum statistics that we put out, over the last five years, between 2001 and 2005, the number of asylum seekers for Australia dropped by 75-percent. I believe that the number in 2005 is some three-thousand asylum seekers that they had," he said.
Pagonis says Australia is not in breech of the Refugee Convention because no refugees have been deported to their countries. But, she says the UNHCR has a lot of concerns about the direction in which things are going.