UN Criticises Australia’s ‘Strange Obsession with Boats'
18 June 2014 at 4:27 pm
Australia’s ‘boat people’ policy has been publicly criticised at an annual global forum on refugee issues.
The United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees Antonio Guterres has described Australia’s policy of deterring asylum seekers who arrive by boat to seek refugee protection as “very strange”.
Answering a question posed by an Australian refugee community representative at the UNHCR-NGO consultations in Geneva, Guterres said Australia was in a “very strange situation” with its refugee policy.
While commending Australia for its successful resettlement program, Guterres told an audience of 485 NGO representatives from 82 countries that asylum seekers who arrived by boat triggered a different response.
“(Australia) is a very generous country hosting refugees. It has the most successful resettlement program I can imagine and the community integration is excellent. The combination of civil society, local authorities and central government in that is excellent,” Guterres said.
“The problem is when we discuss boats and there, of course, we enter into a very, very, very dramatic thing. I think it is a kind of collective sociological and psychological question. They receive, I think, 180,000 migrants in a year. If you come to Australia in a different way, it’s fine but if they come in a boat it is like something strange happens to their minds.”
In his opening address, while outlining growth in xenophobia in some nations and more hostile reactions to refugees in others, Guterres named Australia as one of a number of countries closing its borders to people seeking protection.
Later, in response to a question from Amnesty International Australia, he reiterated concerns about Australia shifting its responsibilities to asylum seekers to countries like Nauru and Papua New Guinea where adequate refugee protections were not in place, reaffirming UNHCR’s commitment to continue monitoring conditions in Australia’s offshore detention centres.
Guterres also expressed reservations about Australia’s proposed refugee resettlement arrangement with Cambodia, saying: “The fact that Cambodia has signed the Convention doesn’t mean that Cambodia is an adequate space for meaningful protection for people in need.”
Refugee Council of Australia (RCOA) Chief Executive Officer Paul Power said the public criticism of Australia in such an important annual global forum on refugee issues was a clear indication of how much Australia’s international reputation has declined as a result of harsh responses to public seeking asylum.
“In 1954, Australia was one of the first countries to accede to the Refugee Convention and in the decades since has carefully built a reputation as a country that respects human rights and protects people who ask for protection from persecution,” Power said.
“Sadly, after more than a decade of deterrence and deflection of its international obligations towards asylum seekers, Australia is being seen for what it is – a country that has manufactured a border protection crisis to justify turning its back on people seeking its help.”
Power said the UNHCR-NGO consultations were an opportunity to bring the concerns of Australian NGOs and refugee communities to an international audience.
Australia is being represented by 11 NGOs and five community representatives from Australia including former refugee from Iraq and Melbourne-based settlement worker Nuha Markus who travelled to Geneva under the Refugee Council of Australia’s John Gibson Refugee Community Leadership Grant.
The representatives are attending the three-day NGO Consultations and a series of meetings RCOA has arranged with senior officials of UNHCR in Geneva.
“While Australian policies are certainly being discussed, many of the issues being raised by Australian delegates relate to concerns of refugee diasporas in Australia about the treatment of refugees and asylum seekers in various parts of Asia, the Middle East and Africa,” Power said.
“The issues being raised by refugee community representatives include issues as varied as access to UNHCR offices and refugee status determination in Asia, forced marriage among refugee women in the Middle East and security issues in refugee camps in the Horn of Africa.”
Antonio Guterres’ address and his responses to questions can be viewed at http://new.livestream.com/4am/unhcr