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UN calls on Australia to evacuate offshore refugee facilities

The UNHCR's spokesperson, Catherine Stubberfield, addresses a media conference in Geneva on October 12, 2018. (Photo via social media)

The United Nations has called on Australia to immediately evacuate refugees and asylum seekers stranded on the Pacific islands of Nauru and Papua New Guinea to prevent an unfolding health crisis.

The United Nations High Commission for Refugees (UNHCR) said on Friday that Australia should end its offshore processing policy on Nauru and Papua New Guinea, citing a “collapsing health situation” at the centers.

“In the context of deteriorating health and reduced medical care, Australia must now act to prevent further tragedy to those forcibly transferred under its so-called 'offshore processing' policy. UNHCR renews its call for refugees and asylum seekers to be moved immediately to Australia, where they can receive adequate support and care," said Catherine Stubberfield, a spokeswoman for the UNHCR in Geneva.

Stubberfield said many refugees and asylum seekers in Nauru and Papua New Guinea had attempted self-harm or suicide last month, adding that others were suffering “acute” physical and mental health issues, but had not received medical care.

“UNHCR has repeatedly stressed the need for immediate long-term solutions outside of Papua New Guinea and Nauru. These should include comprehensive medical outreach and torture and trauma counseling. The Australian authorities have a clear duty of care for the welfare of people transferred to these places. These critical responsibilities nevertheless remain unfulfilled," she said.

This photograph taken on September 2, 2018 shows a view of a dwelling at refugee Camp Four on the Pacific island of Nauru. (Photo by AFP)

'Responsibility lies with Australia'

Stubberfield also said the Australian government had to face the responsibility of its offshore detention camps because it had designed, paid for and set up the facilities.

“UNHCR does not agree with the government of Australia’s assertion that such cases are solely matters for Papua New Guinea and Nauru,” she said. “Ultimately, responsibility lies with Australia for those who have sought its protection. As we mentioned, this is a system designed, financed, managed by Australia, and it’s Australia which must be accountable for the full gamut of those consequences.”

The UNHCR spokeswoman urged the Australian government to take up New Zealand’s offer to accept some of those held in both detention centers.

According to the UN, more than 1,400 people are still being held on Nauru and Papua New Guinea, which have hosted Australia-bound refugees and asylum seekers forcibly transferred there since 2013.

“Our own consultant medical experts in 2016 found a cumulative prevalence of anxiety, depression and PTSD (post-traumatic stress disorder) in both Papua New Guinea and Nauru, to be well above 80 per cent, and the situation has deteriorated since then,” Stubberfield said. “So, there are very serious needs that are not being met. There’s no longer time for the g overnment of Australia to delay or find other solutions, and it’s for that reason that we’re asking people be evacuated today.”

The UNHCR's appeal to the Australian government to end offshore processing came after warnings from international medical charity Doctors without Borders (MSF) about the "absolutely devastating" situation of refugees on Nauru.

At least 78 people attempted suicide, had suicidal thoughts or self-harmed in the last 11 months on Nauru, according to MSF.

Last week, government officials at Nauru forced MSF to leave the island, where it had been working since November 2017 by providing psychological and psychiatric services to refugees, asylum seekers, and local Nauruans.

Australia has been widely criticized by the international community and human rights advocates for sending those asylum seekers who try to reach its shores by boat to Canberra-funded detention camps on Nauru and Papua New Guinea.

The United Nations (UN) Human Rights Committee has on several occasions expressed concern about the refugees’ physical and mental well-being on Nauru, citing instances of assault, sexual abuse, self-harm, and suspicious deaths.

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