UNHCR welcomes close of Australia's Pacific Solution

Briefing Notes, 8 February 2008

This is a summary of what was said by UNHCR spokesperson Jennifer Pagonis to whom quoted text may be attributed at the press briefing, on 8 February 2008, at the Palais des Nations in Geneva.

UNHCR welcomes the end of Australia's Pacific Solution which comes to a close today (Friday), with the departure of last remaining 21 refugees from the tiny Pacific Island state of Nauru for Australia. The 21 Sri Lankan refugees left Nauru for Brisbane this morning local time, and were then travelling on to Sydney, Perth, Adelaide, Cairns and Melbourne.

The group were among 83 asylum seekers intercepted on their way to Australia on 22 February last year. They were taken first to the Australian territory of Christmas Island and then transferred to Nauru on 17 March 2007 to have their refugee claims assessed. All were determined to be refugees.

UNHCR had strong concerns about the 'Pacific Solution' a deterrence policy which diverted more than 1,600 asylum seekers to Nauru or Papua New Guinea (PNG), denying them access to Australian territory to lodge asylum claims. It was introduced by the Australian Government in 2001 in the wake of the Tampa episode when the Norwegian Freighter, the MV Tampa, was refused permission to disembark 433 mainly Afghan asylum seekers it had rescued at sea. The asylum seekers were eventually transferred to a new offshore processing centre on Nauru, after New Zealand had accepted 131 of them as refugees directly from the boat, sparking the Pacific Solution policy.

The last detainee left Manus Island, PNG, in 2004 and, in our view, today's closure of the centre on Nauru signals the end of a difficult chapter in Australia's treatment of refugees and asylum seekers. Many bona fide refugees caught by the policy spent long periods of isolation, mental hardship and uncertainty and prolonged separation from their families.

We welcome the prompt decision taken by the new Australian Government to end the Pacific Solution and bring the refugees to Australia. We hope that any continuation of offshore processing on the Australian territory of Christmas Island reflects the letter and the spirit of the 1951 Refugee Convention. We hope that asylum procedures on Christmas Island will mirror those that apply to people who have gained access to Australia's onshore protection system. This would include appropriate reception arrangements that avoid detention if possible, refugee status determination that includes independent appeal rights and timely solutions in Australia for those found to be refugees.

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Tsunami Aftermath in Sri Lanka

Shortly after the tsunami hit Sri Lanka, killing over 30,000 people and displacing nearly 800,000, UNHCR was asked to take a lead role in providing transitional shelter – bridging the gap between emergency tents and the construction of permanent homes. The refugee agency is not normally involved in natural disasters, but lent its support to the effort because of the scale of the devastation and because many of the tsunami-affected people were also displaced by the conflict.

Since the 26 December 2004 tsunami, UNHCR has helped in the coordination and construction of over 55,000 transitional shelters and has directly constructed, through its partners, 4,500 shelters in Jaffna in the north, and Ampara District in the east. These efforts are helping some 20,000 people rebuild their lives.

On 15 November, 2005, UNHCR completed its post-tsunami shelter role and formally handed over responsibility for the shelter sector to the Sri Lankan government. Now, UNHCR is returning its full focus to its pre-tsunami work of providing assistance to people internally displaced by the conflict, and refugees repatriating from India.

Tsunami Aftermath in Sri Lanka

Picking Up the Pieces in Sri Lanka

In an unprecedented response to a natural disaster, the U.N. refugee agency – whose mandate is to protect refugees fleeing violence and persecution – has kicked off a six-month, multi-million dollar emergency relief operation to aid tsunami victims in Sri Lanka, Indonesia and Somalia. UNHCR has worked in Sri Lanka for nearly 20 years and has the largest operational presence in the country with seven offices, 113 staff and a strong network of partnerships in place. The day of the tsunami, UNHCR opened up its warehouses in the island nation and began distributing existing stockpiles – including plastic sheeting, cooking sets and clothing for 100,000 people.

UNHCR estimates that some 889,000 people are now displaced in Sri Lanka, including many who were already displaced by the long-running conflict in the north. Prior to the tsunami, UNHCR assisted 390,000 people uprooted by the war. UNHCR is now expanding its logistical and warehouse capacity throughout the island to facilitate delivery of relief items to the needy populations, including in the war-affected area. The refugee agency is currently distributing relief items and funding mobile health clinics to assist the injured and sick.

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Sri Lanka: IDPs and Returnees

During Sri Lanka's 20-year civil war more than 1 million people were uprooted from their homes or forced to flee, often repeatedly. Many found shelter in UNHCR-supported Open Relief Centers, in government welfare centers or with relatives and friends.

In February 2002, the Sri Lankan government and the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) signed a cease-fire accord and began a series of talks aimed at negotiating a lasting peace. By late 2003, more than 300,000 internally displaced persons had returned to their often destroyed towns and villages.

In the midst of these returns, UNHCR provided physical and legal protection to war affected civilians – along with financing a range of special projects to provide new temporary shelter, health and sanitation facilities, various community services, and quick and cheap income generation projects.

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