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UN 'troubled' by Australia's treatment of asylum-seekers

The United Nations said today it was "deeply troubled" by Australia's treatment of asylum-seekers, as rights group Amnesty International condemned the reopening of a remote detention centre.

world Updated: Apr 19, 2010 13:09 IST

The United Nations said on Monday it was "deeply troubled" by Australia's treatment of asylum-seekers, as rights group Amnesty International condemned the reopening of a remote detention centre.

An influx of immigrants has prompted the government to freeze applications from Afghans and Sri Lankans and to reopen the Curtin Air Base, which was shut down 2002 following riots, to accommodate them.

The United Nations refugee agency UNHCR said these measures were likely to have a negative impact on the health and well being of asylum-seekers, particularly those who had already endured torture or trauma.

"The combination of mandatory detention, suspension of asylum claims and the geographical isolation of detention facilities such as Curtin Air Force Base in Western Australia -- all without any effective judicial oversight -- is a deeply troubling set of factors," regional representative Richard Towle said.

Australia this month announced it would suspend asylum claims from Afghanistan for six months and from Sri Lanka for three months as it reassesses the improving security situations in the war-weary countries.

It defended its decision as lawful, saying it was designed to ensure that only those with genuine claims were accepted into Australia as refugees.

But the UNHCR said this approach would leave asylum-seekers locked up for six months or longer as they sit out the freeze, many of them at the crowded Indian Ocean facility of Christmas Island off Western Australia.

The government said the reopening of Curtin, in the sparsely populated far north of Western Australia, some 1,800 kilometres (1,100 miles) north of Perth and 1,000 kilometres west of Darwin, was designed to ease this crowding.

But Amnesty slammed plans to move up to 300 single Afghan and Sri Lankan men now held at Christmas Island to Curtin, saying some of them would be survivors of torture and trauma, and in need of medical help.

"The extreme remoteness of Curtin will limit their access to health, counselling and legal services, and greatly increase the negative psychological impact of prolonged detention," Amnesty's Graham Thom said.

More than 1,800 boat people have arrived in Australia since the beginning of the year, mostly from Sri Lanka and Afghanistan.