The United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees has accused the Australian government of reneging on a “clear understanding” that some refugees detained offshore who have close family ties in Australia could be resettled in the country.
In a statement on Monday, the commissioner, Filippo Grandi, said the United Nations agency had agreed in November to help with the relocation to the United States of refugees in detention centers on Manus Island in Papua New Guinea and on the island nation of Nauru after Washington agreed to take in hundreds of refugees being held by Australia at those centers. But the agency did so, Mr. Grandi said, on the condition that some refugees would be resettled in Australia.
“We agreed to do so on the clear understanding that vulnerable refugees with close family ties in Australia would ultimately be allowed to settle there,” Mr. Grandi said.
But the commissioner said the agency had recently been told by the Australian government that it would not be accepting those refugees and that they, and others on Nauru and Manus, would have to remain at the detention centers or be transferred to Cambodia or to the United States.
Catherine Stubberfield, a spokeswoman for the United Nations refugee agency in the Australian capital, Canberra, said the understanding had not been reached in a single meeting but had emerged during a series of negotiations. She said the accord was also reflected in correspondence between the agency and the Australian government.
“We can be unequivocal about that understanding,” Ms. Stubberfield said. The agency said it could not release the correspondence, however, citing diplomatic privilege.
As recently as Sunday, the Australian immigration minister, Peter Dutton, said refugees would “not be coming to Australia.”
In a statement on Monday, a spokeswoman for the immigration department said: “The position of the coalition government has been clear and consistent: Those transferred” to regional processing centers “will never settle in Australia.”
Four years ago, the Australian government set out to stop migrants and refugees from reaching its shores by boat, introducing a policy under which people found at sea were sent to Nauru and Manus, tiny islands in the Pacific, as the first step to being resettled.
The arrangement was aimed at stopping the flow of boats, mainly from Indonesia, that were packed with people. But Mr. Grandi said the policy had instead caused “extensive, avoidable suffering for far too long.”
“Four years on, more than 2,000 people are still languishing in unacceptable circumstances,” Mr. Grandi added. “Families have been separated and many have suffered physical and psychological harm.”