Tent homes on Nauru.

Tent homes on Nauru. Photo: Angela Wylie

Immigration Minister Scott Morrison has played down the United Nations’ Refugee Agency’s scathing assessment of Australia's offshore detention centres, describing the report's criticism as ‘‘overstated’’.

Asked about the reports, which concluded that asylum seekers on Nauru and Manus Island were being held in conditions tantamount to arbitrary detention in violation of international law, Mr Morrison said the UNHCR has a ‘‘long track record of being completely opposed to offshore processing’’. 

The Immigration Minister suggested it was inevitable the Abbott government would disagree with the UNHCR, given the agency was opposed to offshore processing on the grounds of human rights. 

Mr Morrison said the government had consistently believed in stopping in the boats, and would not retreat from that objective.

However, Mr Morrison admitted the Nauru and Manus Island detention centres had ‘‘serious funding issues’’, which he blamed on the previous Labor government’s ‘‘muddled and incompetent re-implementation of a policy that was under capacity and unfunded’’.

 United Nations inspection teams  found that asylum seekers detained offshore at Australia's behest wer kept in inhumane conditions, with children treated harshly in breach of international law.

Their scathing reports found the Nauru and Manus Island centres were focused on sending asylum seekers home rather than "promoting safe, fair and humane conditions".

The United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees visited the centres in October and late on Tuesday issued reports finding that Australia's agreements with its island neighbours had left hundreds in legal limbo and with serious concerns for their mental health.

The findings paint an especially dire picture for children and survivors of torture.

The Nauru inspectors met several of the 95 child detainees, who drew pictures highlighting their distress.

The inspectors found children were living in hot, humid, cramped conditions with little privacy, were not going to school and their parents held deep concerns for their mental health. 

At the time of the UN visit there were 801 asylum seekers on Nauru and 1091 on Manus Island, including two unaccompanied children.

Just one asylum seeker on Nauru has had a refugee protection claim processed in 14 months, the inspectors found, and none of the asylum seekers on Manus Island had been processed in the 12 months since Australia and PNG struck the deal to send asylum seekers to PNG.

The agency raised particular concern about the inability of PNG and Nauru officials to process asylum seekers' claims for protection. Of the 1093 asylum seekers at Manus Island on October 28, only 160 had been able to lodge claims.

Instead, a "return-oriented environment" had developed at both island centres, with no local legal support for asylum seekers.

The agency was concerned that asylum seekers, including "bona fide refugees", would consider returning because of the uncertainty around processing, lengthy delays in processing and the prospect of settling in PNG, with its high levels of insecurity.

UNHCR's director of international protection, Volker Turk, said: “These reports must be seen in the context of what UNHCR has observed to be a sharp deterioration, during the course of the year, in the overall quality of protection and support available to asylum seekers and refugees who come to Australia by boat.

“Indeed, they highlight that when policies and practices are based primarily on deterrence, they can have harmful and, at times, punishing consequences for people affected, particularly families and children,” he said.

The UN recommended that all pregnant asylum seekers be removed from Nauru until adequate medical facilities were available. Since the July 19 riot, there had been a deterioration in conditions and all processing had stopped.

Mr Morrison said offshore processing was still in a ‘‘transitional phase’’ but there would be improvements over coming months and flagged further talks with Nauru and PNG. 

Australian Greens Senator Sarah Hanson-Young said the UNHCR’s report on the ‘‘detention slums’’ demonstrated why children and pregnant women should not be sent to Nauru to languish.

‘‘The government’s secret war on refugees is going into overdrive, but the world is watching on,’’ she said.

There are currently eight pregnant asylum seekers living in tents on Nauru. 

With AAP