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In advance of Labor debating the controversial policy of refugee boat turnbacks at its National Conference today, the United Nation Refugee Agency (UNHCR) has slammed the policy and questioned its legality under international law.

This is far from the first time the UN's refugee body has condemned the approach, which is currently being used by Abbott Government to repel asylum seekers.

The policy is not used anywhere else in the world and critics claim it merely pushes the refugee problem elsewhere, at great detriment to asylum seekers.

In a statement issued Thursday (23/5/15), the UNHCR said the policy was contrary to the spirit of the 1951 Refugee Convention, may put refugees lives in danger and could have serious international consequences [IA emphasis]:

UNHCR considers that individuals who seek asylum must be properly and individually screened for protection needs, in a process which they understand and in which they are able to explain their needs. If protection issues are raised, they should be properly determined through a substantive and fair refugee status determination procedure to establish whether any one of them may be at risk of persecution or other serious human rights violations. Anything short of such a screening, referral and assessment may risk putting already vulnerable individuals at grave risk of danger.

UNHCR considers that actions to intercept and turn back boats carrying asylum-seekers are contrary to the spirit of the 1951 Refugee Convention, and the practice of turning back boats carrying potential asylum seekers sets a negative precedent for other countries that are hosting large numbers of asylum-seekers and who do not have legal frameworks and safeguards in place and may seek to emulate Australia’s practices and policies.This may have serious consequences for the international system of protection that relies on the sharing, not shifting of responsibilities.

Today, however, Opposition Leader Bill Shorten again reaffirmed his commitment to the divisive policy, which he first flagged on the eve of the Conference this week, causing outrage and consternation throughout much of his own Party.

In his opening address to the ALP National Conference being held in Melbourne this morning, Shorten said Labor must have the option to turn around boats carrying refugees:

"... we must never allow people smugglers to take advantage of a perceived weakness and so ... a Labor government, I believe, must have the option of turning back boats, turning them around, provided it is safe to do so."

Australia is also the only nation in the world that put asylum seekers in offshore long-term detention, something the UNHCR also criticised in its statement [IA emphasis]:

UNHCR has consistently expressed its profound concern at the interception at sea of individuals who may be seeking Australia’s protection and turn backs that appear to be taking place without adequate consideration of an individual’s need for protection.

When boats carrying asylum-seekers are intercepted, UNHCR’s position is that requests for international protection should be considered within the territory of the intercepting state, consistent with fundamental refugee protection principles.

The Labor leader has also been condemned by the CEO of the Refugee Council of Australia, Paul Power, who said the policy had nothing to do with humanitarian concerns, but was made for cynical political reasons.

In comments reported in New Matilda on Thursday, Power said it would leave Australian's wondering what the ALP stands for, if anything:

I’m absolutely convinced it’s got nothing to do with the protection of refugees and everything to do with Labor’s view of its political position.

Sadly for the Labor Party this direction is going to leave millions of Australians deeply, deeply cynical about the ALP and whether it stands for anything. This policy, that the Abbott government is promoting, is the most hard-line in the world of any nation Australia would like to compare itself to.

Power went into more detail in a statement issued earlier this month, where he said 'the eyes of the world' were on Australia.

He said there was widespread 'disgust' in Australia's oppressive policies, which could see it suffer 'adverse consequences' in the future:

... there is widespread disgust that Australia continues to spend billions of dollars each year on deterring, expelling and detaining people trying to seek refuge.

It would be tragic for Australia if the Opposition meekly mimicked the Government’s approach of turning back boats because it lacked the intestinal fortitude to argue for a more principled and practical response to the global need for protection from persecution.

It is completely unrealistic for Australia to believe that it can opt out of international systems of refugee protection and hope that it can turn away or scare off every desperate person seeking safety. It is also unrealistic for Australia to believe that it will suffer no adverse consequences if it continues to push responsibility for the most desperate on to its much poorer neighbours.

The eyes of the world truly are on Australia. Many people will be watching carefully to see whether or not both of Australia’s main political parties end up with policies rejected by all mainstream conservative and social democratic political parties across the industrialised world.

The issue is due to be debated at Labor's National Conference this afternoon (25/3/15) and is expected to be passed without amendment after factional deals.

You can follow managing editor David Donovan on Twitter @davrosz.

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