A highly publicised report by the United Nations' refugee agency labeled conditions in the Manus Island refugee camp “unlawful”, but stopped short of pushing the government to close it completely.
The report was released by the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees on February 4 after a visit to the detention centre over January 15-17. It principally called for the release of children from the “closed” detention camp. It said the Australian government's regime of “arbitrary, indefinite detention” with no legal framework was “deeply troubling”.
Children were “showing signs of the trauma of both their boat journey to Australia and the on-going detention on Manus Island, as well as the worries and stresses being expressed by their parents 'rubbing off' on them and causing additional anxiety”.
“When viewed against the applicable international legal standards, it is clear that the current situation for detained children is profoundly unsatisfactory and UNHCR is therefore of the view that it is not currently appropriate for children to be transferred to Manus Island.”
It said no further asylum seekers should be sent to the island until the UN refugee agency's recommendations were in place.
UNHCR regional representative Richard Towle said on February 4: “Asylum-seekers are distressed and confused about their situation. They are in closed detention, without a process in sight. They feel they have been forgotten.
“The hot and humid weather made the temporary accommodation very uncomfortable. Due to heavy rain at the time of UNHCR’s visit, some areas were extremely muddy and in some places there were large amounts of standing water.”
An immigration department spokesperson told Fairfax that conditions in the camp were “in line with the living standards and amenities for local PNG residents on Manus Island”. Refugees are currently being housed in refurbished shipping containers, tents and have little amenities.
The spokesperson said Australia would “work constructively” with the UN refugee agency, but “it should be recognised that UNHCR has a long-standing position of opposition to offshore processing”.
The report avoided criticism of offshore processing. It did not call for the almost 40 children now held on Manus Island to be returned to Australia and processed in the community.
It said: “For those children already transferred to Manus Island, steps should be taken to accommodate them completely separately to any single men who are in or close to the Centre and, at a minimum, the family compound should be transitioned to a genuinely 'open' centre without further delay.”
Rudimentary suggestions such as more “freedom of movement” and “escorted visits and excursions” were also proposed in the report.
It also highlighted the fact that no refugees sent to the camp have been able to lodge any claims for protection. The report said the Australian government should “proceed with urgency to put in place a full refugee status determination process” — to prevent further trauma.
Greens Senator and immigration spokesperson Sarah Hanson-Young, who also recently visited the centre, revealed that some asylum seekers held in the camp have already been determined to have genuine refugee claims by the UNHCR and hold refugee cards.
But the immigration department said, “As claims assessment has not yet commenced in either Nauru or PNG, it is not possible to verify claims made by some people that they have been found by UNHCR to be refugees.”
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