UNHCR Briefing- Geneva, 26.11.2013

Geneva, 26.11.2013

This is a summary of what was said by the UNHCR spokesperson at today’s Palais des Nations press briefing in Geneva.

1 – Men, women and children suffering from harsh physical conditions and legal shortcomings at Pacific Island asylum centres: UNHCR reports

In two reports released today, UNHCR finds that asylum-seekers transferred from Australia to processing centres at Nauru and Manus Island in Papua New Guinea (PNG) are living in arbitrary detention in conditions that do not meet international standards of treatment.

UNHCR understands Australia’s determination to respond robustly to the challenges of people smuggling and to dissuade people from undertaking dangerous irregular travel by sea. However we believe those responses must not neglect the compelling protection needs, safety and dignity of the individuals affected.

These reports are also in the context of what UNHCR has observed to be a sharp deterioration during 2013 in the overall quality of protection and support available to asylum-seekers and refugees who come to Australia by boat. It remains the case that when policies and practices are based primarily on deterrence, they can have harmful and, at times, punishing consequences for people affected, particularly families and children.  The reports identify troubling shortcomings at both centres, and urge all three States involved to consider the findings and recommendations and act upon them.

In both Nauru and PNG the current policies, operational approaches and harsh physical conditions at the centres not only do not meet international standards – they also have a profound impact on the men, women and children housed there.

UNHCR is concerned that they constitute mandatory detention which is not compatible with international law. We are also worried that they do not provide a fair and efficient system for assessing refugee claims, do not provide safe and humane conditions of treatment in detention, and do not provide for adequate and timely solutions for recognized refugees.

With the Nauru report, it acknowledges some positive developments since our last visit in March. However, there have also been significant setbacks in refugee processing, and a deterioration in reception conditions. Despite a processing system being in place under Nauru law, only one decision has been handed down in the 14 months since the centre reopened.

No decisions at all have been finalized at the centre in PNG, and while some improvements were observed since UNHCR’s last inspection in June, the physical conditions within detention, together with the slowness of processing and the lack of clarity regarding safe and sustainable solutions for refugees were likely, together, to have a serious and negative effect on the health and welfare of people transferred from Australia.

At both centres, the psycho-social well-being of vulnerable people – including survivors of torture and trauma and unaccompanied children – is an issue of concern. UNHCR also called on all three States not to transfer children, particularly those who are unaccompanied, unless and until there has been a marked improvement in conditions in both centres.

UNHCR is particularly concerned by the impact of policies that will prevent recognized refugees from finding safe, dignified and sustainable solutions in the medium to long term. The prospect for refugees in PNG finding permanent protection there presents formidable challenges, and it is clear that Nauru will offer only very limited opportunities for refugees even in the shorter term.

UNHCR believes the arrangements at Nauru and PNG would benefit from a much clearer articulation of the policy and operational framework that would set out how, when and where refugees will be able to secure protection and exercise the rights required under the 1951 Refugee Convention.

The full reports, including recommendations, are available at:


 2 – Kenya: Repatriation process to Somalia starting, must be voluntary

Following the signing on 10 November of a Tripartite Agreement between UNHCR, the Government of Kenya, and the Somali Government, UNHCR and the Kenyan Government have reiterated that all returns of Somalis refugees from Kenya to Somalia should be strictly voluntary. UNHCR does not support forced returns.

This understanding was reaffirmed last Friday (22 November) when the Kenyan and Somali refugee commissioners Badu Katelo and Ahmed Nur, visited Dadaab refugee camp-complex in north-eastern Kenya to discuss the repatriation process now starting. UNHCR works and speaks with the refugees daily, but this visit provided the refugees with the opportunity to ask high-level Somali officials about the areas to which they are considering returning – with some lively informal discussions in addition to town-hall meetings.

The Tripartite Agreement sets out the legal framework for returns to Somalia. It specifies that all returns should be voluntary and take place in safety and dignity. There is no deadline in the agreement for the returns.

Implementation of voluntary repatriation will initially concentrate on supporting on a pilot-project basis refugees who are themselves spontaneously returning to Somalia. Three areas in Somalia will be targeted for this purpose. So far, Luuq, Baidoa and Kismayo are under discussion with the refugees.

Preparations are under way in both Kenya and Somalia to implement the pilot project. In Dadaab, return help-desks have been established to provide refugees with information and assistance on repatriation to Somalia.

 3 – Typhoon Haiyan: UNHCR helps government decongest evacuation centres

In the Philippines, UNHCR is working with the authorities to decongest overcrowded evacuation centres housing survivors of Typhoon Haiyan.

Thousands of people were evacuated to public buildings such as stadiums, schools and churches ahead of the November 8 typhoon. Many have since left, but an estimated 240,000 people still remain in some

1,100 evacuation centres, according to the Department of Social Welfare and Development.

These centres are often overcrowded, with many families living in confined spaces with limited water and sanitation facilities. There is no privacy and tensions are rising. These public buildings are not meant for long-term stay and the situation is not sustainable.

UNHCR is supporting the authorities with decongestion efforts in close coordination with the shelter and camp coordination and camp management clusters. We are also working to ensure that the displaced people are consulted and that alternatives proposed are as safe dignified as possible.

The following are our latest interventions:

n Tacloban’s San Jose village – one of the worst-affected in the area – we are handing over 1,000 tents, 3,000 blankets, 2,000 jerry cans and 1,000 kitchen sets to the local authorities to help the affected population currently in evacuation centres to rebuild their homes.

In Tanauan, south of Tacloban, UNHCR is providing another 1,000 tents to the mayor to help displaced people move out of evacuation centres.

In Guiuan, in Eastern Samar province, we are also distributing plastic sheets and other supplies to families in the evacuation centres and in their home areas.

UNHCR is working with the Philippine government through the Department of Social Welfare and Development. It has provided 240 tents to typhoon-affected staff of the Department and helped them return to their posts. We continue to send relief supplies from Cebu and Tacloban to the UNHCR humanitarian hubs in Ormoc and Guiuan. So far, these supplies have been distributed to more than 50,000 people.

UNHCR has opened a hub in Roxas City in Capiz province and is mobilizing staff to open another hub in Borongan in Eastern Samar province.  At least 17 international staff have reinforced UNHCR’s 30-strong personnel in the Philippines for this emergency. More staff deployments are expected.

Nine international flights have transported relief supplies from UNHCR stockpiles in Dubai and Copenhagen.  Military C-130 planes from Sweden, Australia and New Zealand have helped UNHCR ferry supplies from Cebu to the typhoon-devastated areas.

Under the inter-agency response to Typhoon Haiyan, UNHCR is supporting the government’s efforts by providing relief supplies and coordinating protection monitoring and interventions.


Gisèle Nyembwe

Public Information Associate

Collaboratrice adjointe chargée de l’information UNHCR Canada

Tel: (613) 232-0909 ext. 225

Mobile: (613) 986-4300

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