CANBERRA - Australia's Minister for Immigration and Border Protection Peter Dutton said Australia remains resolute in its commitment to counter people smuggling and prevent people risking their life at sea.
In a media statement issued in Canberra Thursday (Feb 4) following calls for restraint by the United Nations and humanitarian agencies following the Australian High Court ruling on Wednesday on the legality of the government's policy on deportation of asylum seekers to offshore detention centres.
Mr Dutton said the government's Operation Sovereign Borders policy of regional processing of asylum seekers at its immigration detention centres in Nauru and Papua New Guinea will continue. He stated that Australia's tough border protection measures are designed to stop illegal people-smuggling and to safeguard the sovereignty of Australia's borders.
"Australia has removed more than 20 boats from our waters over the past two years and our policy to turn back people smuggling boats to their country of departure will continue," Mr Dutton said.
"The Government also remains committed to regional processing which, beyond our comprehensive on-water measures, provides a further deterrent to people who might otherwise attempt to travel illegally by boat to Australia.
"My message is that there are only two outcomes for people who travel illegally by boat to Australia: they will be intercepted and turned back from Australian waters or they will be sent to another country for processing.
"Processing and resettlement in Australia will never be an option and there are no exceptions; these rules apply to everyone," said Mr Dutton. “People who seek to use a people smuggler to get to Australia risk losing everything, including their lives and the lives of family members.”
The Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR) in Geneva, expressed concern Wednesday over the potential transfer of 267 asylum seekers, including up to 80 children, from Australia to Nauru for offshore immigration processing, following the Australian High Court's decision on Wed (Feb 3). Central to the decision was a retrospective amendment to the Migration Act which was passed by the Australian Parliament shortly after the case was initiated, and which validated the offshore processing of asylum seekers, said OHCHR spokesperson Rupert Colville in a statement.
"We are concerned that this amendment, as well as broader aspects of Australia's policy on the treatment of migrants and asylum seekers arriving without prior authorisation, significantly contravenes the letter and spirit of international human rights law,' said Mr Colville. "Most of these people were reportedly brought to Australia from Nauru to receive medical treatment and are in a fragile physical and mental state. The group includes more than 12 women and at least one child who have allegedly suffered sexual assault or harassment while in Nauru. The group also includes 37 children born in Australia.
"We believe that transferring these 267 individuals to Nauru could further damage their physical and mental health, and would put Australia at risk of breaching its obligation not to return any person to cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment under the Convention against Torture," Mr Colville stated. "Moreover, sending these children to Nauru could contravene Australia's obligations under the Convention on the Rights of the Child. We remind Australia that children, regardless of their legal status, have the right to be treated as children first and foremost, and urge Australia to ensure that the principle of the best interests of the child takes precedence over migration management or administrative considerations."
Mr Colville said that while the OHCHR appreciates Australia's efforts to upgrade medical facilities in Nauru, the Pacific Island state is still ill equipped to respond to the needs of severely traumatized individuals, including children. In addition, the spokesperson said there are inadequate systems for child protection, education or social welfare in place. He addeed that several independent inquiries, including the 2014 Philip Moss inquiry and the 2015 Senate inquiry, have found that Nauru is neither a safe nor an appropriate environment to send people in situations of vulnerability to, in particular children.
"We therefore urge the Australian Government to refrain from transferring all concerned individuals to Nauru," said Mr Colville.
Meanwhile, the UN Committee on the Rights of the Child has reminded the Australian authorities that, under the terms of the Convention on the Rights of the Child, to which Australia is a party, the best interests of the child should be a primary consideration when taking any decision concerning children.
The Committee was reacting to the decision by the Australian High Court that the government's policy of detaining asylum seekers offshore is legal, thereby clearing the way for more than 260 people currently in Australia, including dozens of children and infants, to be deported to an immigration processing centre in Nauru.
"The Committee had already expressed its concern in 2012 when it reviewed Australia at 'the inadequate understanding and application of the principle of the best interests of the child in asylum-seeking, refugee and/or immigration detention situations'," said Committee Chair Benyam Mezmur. "This decision by the High Court greatly concerns us as these children and their families face a great risk in being sent to a place that cannot be considered safe nor adequate."
Article 3 (1) of the Convention states: "In all actions concerning children, whether undertaken by public or private social welfare institutions, courts of law, administrative authorities or legislative bodies, the best interests of the child shall be a primary consideration."
Australian Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull stood his ground on asylum seekers, telling parliament on Wednesday : "The people smugglers will not prevail over our sovereignty. Our borders are secure. The line has been drawn somewhere, and it is drawn at our border."
The Chief Executive of the Refugee Council of Australia, Paul Power called on Prime Minister Turnbull, and Minister for Immigration and Border Protection Peter Dutton to “act with leadership and compassion to allow these children and their carers to have security and hope” by allowing them and their families to remain in Australia.
“Despite the extraordinary efforts the Australian Government has gone to in attempting to keep the horrifying abuse in Australia’s offshore detention camps a secret, we know that people sent there by Australia cannot have their safety assured,” said Mr Power.
“Cases of abuse, including sexual abuse and rape of children and even murder, have occurred in Australia’s offshore detention camps and sending these 33 babies and their families and carers back to these environments where they will suffer indefinitely would be callous and cold," he added.