PNG cannot guarantee asylum seekers' rights, says international legal expert

01/09/2011 10:46


An international legal expert has cast doubt on Papua New Guinea’s ability to uphold the rights of asylum seekers following yesterday’s Australian high court ruling which nullified the Australian government’s swap deal with Malaysia.

PNG unlike Malaysia has ratified the UN Refugee Convention but Australian National University’s Professor Don Rothwell said even that was not enough.

“On the evidence that the court was looking at yesterday certainly Malaysia didn’t meet that criteria and at face value it would be difficult at the moment to see how either Papua New Guinea or Nauru would immediately meet that criteria. That doesn’t mean to say that in the future they couldn’t but at the moment I think it would be difficult,” he said when speaking to ABC News this morning.

Professor Rothwell added that New Zealand was the only country in the region which would meet the criteria set by the court.

The Australian Greens Party, a coalition partner in the Gillard government, urged the government to abandon its offshore processing policy and warned it would go to court if Canberra opted for Nauru or PNG’s Manus Island. Under the Malaysia solution Australia was to send 800 asylum seekers to Malaysia in exchange for 4000 already processed refugees in Malaysia.

Australian officials recently visited Manus to see what needed to be done to get the processing centre reopened after Canberra reached an agreement with Port Moresby.

However PNG politician and human rights lawyer, Powes Parkop, has indicated he would consider mounting a legal challenge in the PNG Supreme Court if Manus Island is reopened.

“If they are locked up it will be illegal. The law here is very clear a person cannot be locked up without charge. It is also not part of our culture to put them in detention,” said Mr Parkop, who is also a Manus Islander.

The high court decision has forced the Gillard government back to the drawing board with Immigration Minister Chris Bowen admitting the ruling had ramifications for the government’s offshore processing policy.

The court ruling has established a set of criteria which the Australian immigration minister will use to determine another country’s suitability to host asylum seekers. These are that the country provides access to effective procedures to assess their refugee claims; the asylum seekers are protected while their refugee claims are determined and; the asylum seekers are protected pending either their voluntary return to their country of origin or resettlement in another country. The court also ruled that the minister could not send asylum seekers to Malaysia while their status was still being determined because he did not have the powers and the Australian government’s Malaysia solution was not legally binding.