UNHCR appeals to Australia for action to save lives at immediate risk

By agency reporter
October 23, 2018

UNHCR, the UN Refugee Agency, is appealing to the Government of Australia to take urgent action for all refugees and asylum-seekers in Papua New Guinea and Nauru. UNHCR appreciates the efforts of doctors, independent experts, lawyers and elected representatives from all sides of politics to highlight the human cost of “offshore processing” and its consequences in recent weeks. This reflects growing recognition that lives are at immediate and critical risk, as well as increased community concern. Despite this, decisive action is still to be taken.

The immediate evacuation of refugees and asylum-seekers from Papua New Guinea and Nauru to Australia does not require legislative change. Further, says the UNHCR, constraints upon freedom of movement and any differentiated treatment of refugees are both unnecessary and contrary to fundamental principles of refugee protection. Concerted action, founded upon a clear humanitarian imperative, is needed to prevent further deaths and harm to innocent men, women and children alike.

“While children are an obvious priority, there are many other acutely vulnerable men and women in both Papua New Guinea and Nauru who must not be forgotten,” urged UNHCR Regional Representative, Thomas Albrecht. “Australia has both the ability and responsibility to take action and save lives today.”

The movement of only children and their families would do nothing to address the predicament of others with urgent medical needs, a number of whom were also children when they were forcibly sent to Nauru over five years ago. Equally, the desperate situation of refugees and asylum-seekers in Papua New Guinea and Nauru is now such that evacuation of only some individuals would heighten the despair and exacerbate severe mental health risks of those left behind.

As early as 2016, UNHCR medical consultants found that cumulative rates of depression, anxiety and post-traumatic stress disorder exceeded 80 per cent among the surveyed population in both countries. Circumstances have continued to deteriorate since that time.

UNHCR says the circumstances of refugees and asylum-seekers in Papua New Guinea and Nauru are entirely distinct from those of nationals and people who have migrated voluntarily. The unique needs of human beings who have fled war and persecution, have been forcibly transferred, detained and subject to harrowing conditions require an intensive response that is simply not available locally. These facts in no way detract from the various good faith efforts of the Governments of Papua New Guinea and Nauru respectively, or the warmth and hospitality of their people.

Approximately 3,000 refugees and asylum-seekers have been forcibly transferred by Australia to so-called “offshore processing” facilities in Papua New Guinea and Nauru since the introduction of the current policy in 2013. Of these, some 800 remain in Nauru and 650 in Papua New Guinea.

Refugees and asylum-seekers were initially held in closed detention, before the transition of the Nauru Regional Processing Centre (in 2015) and Manus Island Regional Processing Centre (in 2016) to more open facilities. In April 2016, the Supreme Court of Papua New Guinea found that the detention arrangements on Manus Island violated the right to liberty under Papua New Guinea’s Constitution.

Circumstances and conditions for refugees under Australia’s 'offshore processing' policy have had severely negative impacts on health, and particularly significantly mental health. During 2016, UNHCR medical experts found cumulative rates of depression, anxiety and PTSD among refugees forcibly transferred to Papua New Guinea and Nauru to be the highest recorded in the medical literature to date at over 80 per cent per cent in both locations. The wellbeing of refugees has been noted by various medical experts to have further deteriorated since that time.

The Government of Australia currently contracts International Health and Medical Services (IHMS) to provide limited healthcare services to refugees and asylum-seekers in Nauru, and Pacific International Hospital in Papua New Guinea. The respective local healthcare systems, on which most refugees are forced to rely after hours, are under-resourced and understaffed in both countries. Torture and trauma counselling services were discontinued on Manus Island following the withdrawal of the Government of Australia in October 2017. In Nauru, torture and trauma support is available only to those who experienced trauma prior to their arrival in Australia. MSF International ceased providing medical services to Nauruans and refugees alike on 6 October 2018, in accordance with an order received from the Government of Nauru. They have called for the immediate medical evacuation of all refugees and asylum-seekers from Nauru, noting at least 78 instances of attempted suicide, suicidal thoughts and self-harm among their patients in Nauru in the past 11 months.

* UNHCR The UN Refugee Agency http://www.unhcr.org/uk/

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