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'Any of us can become a refugee'

620,000 refugees who have come to this country since Australia signed the UN Refugee Convention, 60 years ago this week.

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The United Nations refugee agency has warned resettlement countries are obliged to deliver education and labour rights and “not just safety” to asylum seekers, as the Abbott government prepares to do a deal with Cambodia.

The UNHCR’s director of international protection Volker Turk has also diplomatically rebuffed Immigration Minister Scott Morrison's push for signatories to the Refugee Convention to define their own obligations.

The remarks came after Mr Morrison said on Thursday that a country's economic capacity was irrelevant to his expansion of a "club" of nations that could take refugees: "It's not about whether [resettlement countries] are poor; it's about whether they can be safe."

"We are a sovereign body and we will protect our borders.": Scott Morrison.

"We are a sovereign body and we will protect our borders.": Scott Morrison. Photo: AFR

Mr Morrison insisted he would not be swayed by concerns from agencies such as the UNHCR, declaring: “We are a sovereign body and we will protect our borders.”

Speaking on the 60th anniversary of the Refugee Convention, Mr Turk rejected Mr Morrison's claims that the convention, which he said had saved millions of lives, needed revision. What was required, he said, was “proper application and implementation, practical co-operation and burden-sharing".

He said the convention required Australia to not return refugees to unsafe territories, and also to ensure asylum seekers and refugees had freedom of movement, education, access to health care and labour rights.

The convention stood for "fundamental principles of a standard of treatment that is adequate and dignified to the human being", he said.

Mr Turk would not be drawn on Cambodia’s suitability as a resettlement country for people seeking asylum in Australia, but said the UNHCR's opposition to Australia's resettlement agreement with Papua New Guinea was clear. Cambodia was ranked by independent agencies as one of the world's most corrupt countries.

"Cambodia is a country that has its own set of difficulties, including economically," Mr Turk said. "I don’t want to speculate. The government has not contacted us on this ... it’s not just about safety, it’s about fundamental human rights."

The Refugee Convention was drafted after World War II to secure better protection for refugees than the international community had afforded those fleeing the Nazis in Europe in the 1930s and 1940s. Australia was the sixth country to sign in 1954, bringing it into effect.

Mr Morrison said its principles remained “sound” and its wording largely “relevant” 60 years on. But its interpretation had “devolved to an internationalist approach of the world which has taken away the definition of this convention [from] those who signed it, to frankly, those who commentate on it".

"I take a fairly literal interpretation of the document and over time it has been added by others and should be stripped back to its original intent." He said any “overhaul” could involve signatory states, rather than the UN, playing a greater role in defining their own obligations.

Mr Turk disagreed, saying Australia had agreed in the convention to co-operate with the UNHCR in implementing it, including to its role as a supervisor: "This makes eminent sense because you need an organ that is the voice of reason above the fray of domestic politics."

People still needed the convention’s protection in the current “refugee crisis”, with 2.4 million people estimated to be fleeing their homelands globally. A quarter of Lebanon’s population – one million people – were now refugees, he said, many of whom had fled the Syrian conflict.

Former immigration minister Ian Macphee said: “I feel ashamed, really ashamed, at the way in which the major Australian political parties have behaved on the refugee issue. It denies all the principles that underlie Australia’s sense of a fair go.”

Chris Evans, another former minister, said Australians did not understand that the movement of refugees was a global problem. "We always try and pretend that it's just an Australian issue and we're wrong," he said. "You only have to look at the experience in Europe or America. It's a constant challenge. 

"The thing that most frightened me about the debate in Australia was the way people sought to demonise or vilify those seeking refuge in this country."

Mr Morrison said Australia’s key obligation to asylum seekers was to provide a “temporary safe haven” until they were “able to return home to a peaceful and prosperous life”.

But Mr Turk called this a “simplistic” approach, saying while some people might lose their refugee status once they no longer needed international protection, others required it for life.