GENEVA (Reuters) - An independent U.N. investigator into the human rights of migrants has postponed an official visit to Australia that was due to begin on Sunday, citing a lack of government cooperation and “unacceptable” legal restrictions.
Asylum seekers have long been a lightning-rod political issue in Australia, although it has never received, from territories such as Indonesia, anywhere near the number of refugees currently flooding into Europe from war-ravaged areas of the Middle East and North Africa.
U.N. Special Rapporteur Francois Crépeau had planned to gather first-hand information about the situation of migrants and asylum seekers in the country and in Australian off-shore detention centers in neighboring Nauru and Papua New Guinea.
He had asked for access since March, but Australia denied him access to any offshore center, he said in a statement.
Crépeau also blamed Australia’s 2015 Border Force Act, which discourages detention center service providers with the threat of a two year court sentence if they reveal “protected information”, for preventing him from doing his job.
“This threat of reprisals with persons who would want to cooperate with me on the occasion of this official visit is unacceptable,” Crépeau said in the statement.
He had asked Australia to guarantee in writing that nobody helping him would suffer reprisals, but the Australian government refused, the statement said.
Australian Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull said on Wednesday he was “concerned” about the country’s controversial offshore immigration detention centers, although he stopped short of committing his government to reconsidering them.
Australia has vowed to stop asylum seekers reaching its shores, turning boats back to Indonesia when it can and sending those it cannot for detention in camps on Manus island in impoverished Papua New Guinea and on Nauru in the South Pacific.
The United Nations and human rights groups have criticized Australia over conditions at the camps and its tough asylum-seeker policies, which Turnbull’s predecessor Tony Abbott defended as necessary to stop deaths at sea and often described as one of his government’s biggest achievements.
Reporting by Tom Miles; Editing by Ralph Boulton