February 9, 2018 / 4:53 PM / 9 months ago

U.N. says Papua New Guinea has 'duty' to care for refugees sent by Australia

PHNOM PENH (Thomson Reuters Foundation) - Papua New Guinea was told by the United Nations’ top human rights official on Friday that it is obligated to take care of hundreds of refugees sent there by Australia.

Zeid Ra’ad al-Hussein, U.N. High Commissioner for Human Rights, raised the issue with PNG Prime Minister Peter O’Neill in a meeting in the capital, Port Moresby, said Zeid’s spokeswoman Ravina Shamdasani.

Shamdasani said Zeid and O’Neill discussed the need for PNG to ensure that refugees were living in “satisfactory” conditions with protection for their human rights.

“That is the duty of the state of Papua New Guinea – to ensure that happens while they’re on their territory,” she told the Thomson Reuters Foundation by phone from Fiji’s capital, Suva, where the delegation traveled after leaving PNG.

“He will certainly be following up with Australia as well,” Shamdasani said.

Officials in PNG were unavailable for comment.

The refugees, from countries including Pakistan, Sudan and Iran, were trying to reach Australia, which has a policy against what the government calls “illegal maritime arrivals”.

After detaining the refugees at sea, Australia transported them to “offshore processing centers” that it opened in 2013 on Manus Island in PNG and on the tiny Pacific island nation of Nauru.

In 2016, PNG’s Supreme Court ruled it was illegal to detain the nearly 800 refugees, as well as asylum seekers who have not been registered as refugees, on Manus Island.

In October, Australia withdrew all services to the facility and said it would fund three new “transit centers” on Manus, where refugees would be provided with security, healthcare and money to buy food.

But in a report last week, Amnesty International said the refugees were “at risk of violence from the local community and the authorities, who have disavowed responsibility for them”.

Amnesty said conditions at the transit centers were unsafe, adding that police had failed to investigate robberies and assaults against some refugees. The organization also said PNG police had extorted bribes from some refugees.

The rights group accused Australia of offloading its responsibility on to PNG - which has high rates of poverty and violence - and which it said was “both unwilling and unable to settle refugees safely and with dignity”.

An official at the Australian Border Force said the government had previously replied to criticisms of its policies, including in a November statement that said the new transit centers provided “clean, safe alternative accommodation”.

Reporting by Jared Ferrie. Editing by Robert Carmichael. Please credit the Thomson Reuters Foundation, the charitable arm of Thomson Reuters, that covers humanitarian news, women’s rights, trafficking, property rights, resilliance and climate change. Visit news.trust.org to see more stories.

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