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UN Offices Assail Australia’s Treatment of Refugees

The U.N. human rights office and U.N. refugee agency are condemning Australia’s policy toward 600 refugees and asylum seekers at a former Australian immigration camp in Papua New Guinea, calling it cruel and a violation of international humanitarian and refugee laws.

The agencies warned this week that a humanitarian emergency was unfolding at the Manus Island camp following Australia’s decision to close the facility and pull out its support staff.

Human rights spokesman Rupert Colville said his agency was very concerned about the safety and well-being of the 600 men who remained in the so-called accommodation center. He said they were too frightened to leave.

“We call on the Australian government, as the party who interned the men in the first place, to immediately provide protection, food, water and other basic services, which have been cut off since the authorities shuttered the facility on 31st October. … Moreover, the men have said they fear they will be subjected to violence at the hands of locals if they leave the compound.”

Colville said the men had been victims of violence in the past, so these fears should be respected and addressed.

The U.N. refugee agency has staff on the ground and is monitoring the situation.

UNHCR spokesman Babar Baloch told VOA that an alternate site being built to house the refugees and asylum seekers was not ready. He said tensions were growing as protests of local residents opposed to the move intensified.

“So, we are quite worried. … Australia’s policy of deterrence by rescuing people at sea, mistreating them and abandoning them has become a notion of cruelty,” he said. “So, we are trying to urge Australia again and again to take up its obligation and its responsibility.”

Baloch said the humanitarian emergency should be dealt with in a humane way, based on compassion and international laws.

Australia scheduled the Manus facility for closure after the Supreme Court in Papua New Guinea ruled last year that the detention center was unconstitutional because it violated the detainees’ right of personal liberty.

Australia’s strict immigration policy bars asylum seekers who come from the Middle East, Africa and Asia from reaching the country’s shores by boat. Instead, they go to Manus Island or another facility on Papua New Guinea. Rights activists have criticized conditions at the camps.

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