The U.N. refugee agency says the health of more than 1,400 refugees and asylum seekers held at offshore processing facilities in Papua New Guinea and Nauru has seriously deteriorated. It says they must be moved immediately to Australia, where they can get medical care.
Australia set up offshore processing centers in Papua New Guinea and Nauru in 2013 to deter refugees arriving by sea from landing on its shores. Over the past five years, 12 people have died, half of them confirmed or suspected suicides.
UNHCR spokeswoman Catherine Stubberfield says under international law, Australia is responsible for those who have sought its protection. She says the government must immediately transfer the refugees and asylum seekers in the offshore centers to Australia to prevent further tragedies and loss of life.
She tells VOA an extremely large number of people are suffering acute physical and mental health problems and are not receiving adequate support and care. She says cases of self-harm and attempted suicide have escalated significantly in the past few months.
"Our own consultant medical experts in 2016 found accumulative prevalence of anxiety, depression and PTSD (Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder) in both Papua New Guinea and Nauru to be well above 80 percent and the situation has deteriorated since then. So, there are very serious needs that are not being met. There is no longer time for the government of Australia to delay or find other solutions."
Stubberfield says the level of human suffering experienced by refugees and asylum seekers living in these conditions is unparalleled.
The Australian government says that Papua New Guinea and Nauru are solely responsible for matters concerning the refugees. The UNHCR disagrees, noting it was Australia that designed, financed and managed the systems on the islands. Recently, Nauru's government ordered medical charity Doctors Without Borders to stop its mental health services on the island and leave.
The United States has accepted 1,250 refugees for resettlement but, the process is going very slowly. In the meantime, Stubberfield says the health of the refugees is worsening. She says Australia must care for them as a matter of urgency.