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UN probes Australia claims of asylum-seeker abuse

JAKARTA -- The United Nations refugee agency said Friday it was examining allegations that asylum-seekers were abused as the Australian navy turned their boats back to Indonesia.

The UNHCR in Jakarta said that if it was confirmed asylum-seekers were mistreated then the Australian government should carry out a “swift investigation.”

Canberra has vehemently denied allegations the navy mistreated asylum-seekers during turn-backs, part of its military-led operation to stem the flow of asylum-seekers, and dismissed the notion of an independent investigation.

The claims surfaced after a boatload of Australia-bound would-be refugees, mostly from Africa, were sent back to Indonesia by the Australian navy earlier this month, the first reported turn-back.

Attention has focused on the issue in recent days after the ABC reported claims that 10 asylum-seekers required medical treatment.

These included seven who had burns on their hands after being instructed to hold onto a hot pipe on their ship's engine, the broadcaster said.

Asylum-seekers on the boat also made similar claims of mistreatment when interviewed by AFP.

“UNHCR has heard serious allegations of boats carrying potential asylum-seekers being pushed back from Australia to Indonesia and of mistreatment during the process,” a refugee agency spokeswoman in Jakarta told AFP.

“We are corroborating these individual accounts. If confirmed, we hope that the Australian authorities will conduct a swift investigation into these allegations.”

Australian Immigration Minister Scott Morrison said Wednesday he had been “given assurances” by the Australian navy, “and I believe those assurances.”

“The Australian government is not going to put up with people sledging the Australian navy with unsubstantiated claims when they have high levels of motivation for spinning stories in order to undermine this government's highly successful border protection policies,” he said.

“I'm disappointed such spurious allegations have been sledged against our navy,” he added.

The UNHCR has previously warned Australia's boat pushbacks could be in breach of international law and has strongly criticized Australia's mandatory detention of asylum-seekers in Pacific nation camps, in often “harsh physical conditions” that “do not meet international standards.”

Canberra's military-run Operation Sovereign Borders policy, which sees asylum-seeker boats turned back when it is safe to do so, has angered Indonesia due to several incursions, despite an official apology.

However Morrison insisted Friday that Canberra would not be “stepping back” from the operation.

Australia has pushed ahead with the policy despite a row with Jakarta over spying allegations that caused the worst breakdown in the nations' relations in years.

Though they come in relatively small numbers by global standards, asylum-seekers are a heated political issue in Australia.

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