U.N. refugee chief urges common sense in Australia asylum debate

GENEVA Fri Aug 23, 2013 10:11am EDT

Antonio Guterres, United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees answers a reporter's question after a news conference at the United Nations European headquarters in Geneva August 23, 2013. REUTERS/Denis Balibouse

Antonio Guterres, United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees answers a reporter's question after a news conference at the United Nations European headquarters in Geneva August 23, 2013.

Credit: Reuters/Denis Balibouse

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GENEVA (Reuters) - The head of U.N. refugee agency UNHCR said on Friday he hopes common sense will prevail in Australia's election-season debate about how the country treats asylum seekers.

"We are of course very much interested, not in the election itself, but in the debate about asylum policy in Australia," said U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees Antonio Guterres.

Opinion polls predict the government of Prime Minister Kevin Rudd's Labor Party will be unseated by the conservative coalition led by Tony Abbot when Australians vote on September 7.

In a pitch to voters concerned about immigration, Abbott promised last week to revive tough laws barring thousands of asylum seekers already in Australia from settling there permanently.

"The debate about these questions, not only in Australia but in many other parts of the world, is unfortunately not always based only on realities. It's based on perceptions, on prejudice, on other aspects," Guterres told Reuters.

"But we hope that in the end common sense will prevail."

Abbot has said he would appoint a military commander to take charge of asylum issues in an operation dubbed "sovereign borders", and would give the 30,000 asylum seekers in Australia only temporary protection visas if they were found to be refugees, meaning they could be sent to their home country in the future.

Australia had always been generous about resettling refugees and has one of the most successful programs to integrate resettled refugees anywhere in the world, Guterres said.

"I hope... Australia understands also the need to provide protection to those that seek protection in Australia," he said.

Rudd's government was recently rapped by a U.N. human rights watchdog for mistreating a group of 46 refugees, including 42 Tamils from Sri Lanka, after judging them to be a potential security risk.

A U.N. committee that monitors compliance with a major human rights treaty ruled in July that Australia must compensate, release and rehabilitate the refugees, according to a statement from the U.N. human rights office on Thursday.

(Reporting by Tom Miles; Editing by Sonya Hepinstall)

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