Richard Towle said Australia appeared to be breaching international refugee laws by discriminating against asylum seekers based on how they arrived in Australia. Photo: Reuters
Australia is setting a worrying international precedent that - if followed - would undermine the international protection system for asylum seekers, the UNHCR said on Thursday.
United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees regional representative Richard Towle said the recently adopted package of policies designed to deter asylum seekers from travelling to Australia by boat would have ''a significant and deleterious impact on the international system of refugee protection'' if other countries followed suit.
And he said Australia appeared to be breaching international refugee laws by discriminating against asylum seekers based on how they arrived in Australia.
But Mr Towle admitted that there were ''no enforcement provisions under international law'' for countries such as Australia that did not comply with the letter of international laws. ''There is a court of public opinion, internationally.''
On October 31 Immigration Minister Chris Bowen moved to in effect remove the Australian mainland from the migration zone for boat people. The changes, being examined by a parliamentary committee, mean that in the unlikely event asylum seekers made it to the Australian mainland, they would be treated the same way as those who made it to ''excised offshore places'' such as Christmas Island.
In its submission to the parliamentary inquiry examining the changes, the Department of Immigration said it believed the changes were ''consistent'' with Australia's obligations under the Refugee Convention.
The department said the government-commissioned expert panel, led by Air Chief Marshal Angus Houston, recommended 22 policy changes, including the excision to the mainland, all of which the government accepted in principle.
The expert panel said that between 2001 and August 2012, more than 1000 asylum seekers and crew were estimated to have died at sea on their way to Australia.
Mr Towle told the inquiry the new rules would affect few asylum seekers, because it was rare asylum seekers made it through the treacherous waters separating Australia from neighbouring islands. However, he said, the international agency was concerned Australia was damaging the spirit of the Refugee Convention.
''We are concerned that measures to excise large portions of territory to set up systems which substantially reduce fundamental refugee protection rights does set a new precedent internationally,'' he said.
''And if all 148 countries that signed the Refugee Convention were to set up similar kinds of systems which are, in essence, designed to deter and relocate asylum seeker populations on other territories, this would have a significant and deleterious impact on the international system of refugee protection.''
Refugee Council of Australia chief executive Paul Power told the hearing Australia was damaging efforts to build regional co-operation by pushing ahead with the excision legislation.