MELBOURNE, Australia—A United Nations human rights expert has postponed an official visit to Australia because of what he said was a lack of cooperation from the government and worries the people who spoke to him about conditions faced by asylum seekers could risk imprisonment.
Australia’s policy of intercepting migrants trying to reach the country by boat and placing them in offshore detention centers, rather than processing claims for asylum in Australia, has been fiercely criticized by the U.N. and human-rights groups, although the government has defended the approach for successfully halting migrant trafficking and preventing a large number of deaths at sea each year.
In a statement released in Geneva, U.N. Special Rapporteur on the human rights of migrants François Crépeau said legislation enacted by Australia this year stopped him from freely gathering firsthand information about migrants and asylum seekers in the country and being held in centers in nearby Nauru and Papua New Guinea.
Mr. Crépeau said Australia’s conservative government declined to provide a written guarantee that no one who met with him during his visit, which was due to begin Sunday, would be at risk of intimidation or sanctions under the 2015 Border Force Act.
Under the act, people—including those working at the detention centers—face up to two years in prison for making a record of or disclosing anything deemed to be protected information.
“This threat of reprisals with persons who would want to cooperate with me on the occasion of this official visit is unacceptable,” Mr. Crépeau said.
He said that despite repeated requests since March, asking the Australian government to assist in arranging access to processing centers in Nauru and Papua New Guinea, he was unable to secure the cooperation needed to visit them.
A spokesman for Peter Dutton, minister for immigration and border protection, said the government had accommodated the requests of the special rapporteur “to the fullest extent possible.”
The immigration department had also prepared a program of meetings with key government officials, service providers and other organizations, as well as visit to the detention network, the spokesman said in an emailed statement. However, he said access to regional processing centers in Nauru and Papua New Guinea was the responsibility of those nations.
Special rapporteurs are part of a large body of experts within the U.N. Human Rights Council that operate independently of any government or organization.
Mr. Crépeau, a professor at the faculty of law of McGill University in Canada, was appointed a special rapporteur in mid-2011. No estimate was given for when his Australia visit might be rescheduled.
Australia’s opposition Labor and Greens parties called on the government to cooperate with the U.N. visit and provide official assurances that staff working at Australian-funded facilities were free to provide information to the special rapporteur.
“This is a sad indictment on the way Australia views its international obligations and treatment of asylum seekers,” said David Feeney, Labor’s acting shadow minister for immigration and border protection.
The attention on Australia comes as it is seeking its first seat on the influential U.N. Human Rights Council for the 2018-2020 term.
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