People smugglers lift their prices as UN slams latest asylum laws

altPeople smugglers in Indonesia have stepped up the pace and price of a passage to Australia in response to the Gillard government’s new policy on asylum seekers, as the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees warned Australia risked breaching international obligations.

The legislation enabling the offshore processing of asylum seekers on Manus Island in Papua New Guinea and Nauru passed the House of Representatives yesterday and is likely to pass through the Senate tonight.

But even though any new arrivals risk being subject to the new approach, smugglers were still spruiking their ability to get people to Australia.

Ali Reza, a refugee living in the West Java town of Cisarua, said yesterday that about 19 of his housemates had been whisked off on Tuesday night by “agents” who promised to put them on boats bound for Australia.

Mr Reza said they were now demanding extra cash for the journey.

He said the agents “aren’t promising anything. They just say if we want to go this week or next week we must pay our money”.

The regional representative of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, Richard Towle, has criticised plans by the government and opposition to leave asylum seekers on Nauru and Manus Island indefinitely, saying Australia risked breaching its international obligations.

Under a no-advantage principle, anyone sent to those camps will be resettled no sooner than if they had stayed in a refugee camp in Malaysia, Indonesia or elsewhere. The government, which only initiated contact with the UNHCR yesterday, said it would consult the agency to determine an average length of stay, probably about four to five years, before people found to be refugees were resettled.

But Mr Towle said “resettlement is based on individual protection needs, it’s not a mathematical formula and it’s not based on time spent in a queue”.

He said Australia was obliged to resettle people found to be refugees on a case-by-case basis.

He said the rebirthed Pacific solution may involve the physical transfer of people “but that does not involve the transfer of responsibility and accountability for protection”.

Refugee groups and the Greens were critical yesterday that the government was moving more slowly on the more humane recommendations contained in the report by the expert panel, including increasing the annual humanitarian intake from 13,750 people to 20,000.

Both major parties are reluctant to embrace the measure because of the estimated extra cost to the budget of about $1.4 billion over four years.

The Prime Minister, Julia Gillard, said the measure had the government’s in-principle support but “we’ve got to work through all of the financial costs and they are considerable”.


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