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UN Urges End to Australia's Controversial Refugee Detention Policy

Australia is under pressure from the United Nations to end its controversial policy of detaining asylum seekers on the remote Pacific island of Nauru. The U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees has called on the government in Canberra to find a humanitarian solution for asylum seekers who have been held on Nauru for more than three years under Australia's so-called 'Pacific Solution.'

There are 54 asylum seekers in the Australian-sponsored detention center on Nauru. Most are from Iraq and Afghanistan, and most have had their asylum applications in Australia rejected.

They refuse to return to their homelands, insisting it is still too dangerous for them to do so. But they have also exhausted all legal avenues challenging Australia's refusal to grant them refugee status. They can't go forward, and they won't go back.

This week the Australian office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees voiced its concern for the detainees' mental well-being, especially the women and children.

The UNHCR called on the government in Canberra to find a compassionate solution to the problem. The organization has suggested that other countries be encouraged to accept the asylum seekers, who have now been on the tiny Pacific island, halfway between Australia and Hawaii, for three years.

The main opposition Labor Party backs the idea. Labor's immigration spokesman, Lawrie Ferguson, says the UNHCR is on the right track. "We could have a pattern similar to the comprehensive plan in the Philippines for those Vietnamese people still in detention there, where countries around the world offer to take some of the people," he said. "So even the UNHCR says one of the options might be for other countries to accept these people."

Under new border control measures introduced by Australia in 2001, known as the "Pacific solution," would-be migrants arriving by sea from Indonesia without prior permission were transported to camps in Papua New Guinea and Nauru while their asylum applications were considered.

The two states were paid an unspecified fee - the figure for Nauru is believed to be many millions of dollars - to house the refugees. While no time limit for detention was set, Canberra pledged to process the applications "swiftly and fairly."

Canberra insists the policy has been a success, and the number of illegal arrivals has fallen sharply since 2001. The facility in Papua New Guinea has now been closed.

Canberra says more than 700 refugees who spent time on Nauru have been resettled in Australia and elsewhere. Another 500 have returned home voluntarily.