Australia says UN criticism of Pacific camps 'overstated'

Australia on Wednesday rejected United Nations criticism of the Pacific island camps it uses for asylum-seekers, with Immigration Minister Scott Morrison calling the complaints "quite overstated".

The United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees on Tuesday released a harsh review of the facilities on Papua New Guinea's Manus Island and the tiny Pacific state of Nauru, saying they failed to meet international standards of treatment.

The agency said the camps, which house hundreds of asylum-seekers, amounted to arbitrary detention in breach of international law and failed to provide an efficient system for assessing refugee claims or safe and humane conditions.

But Morrison told reporters that the UNHCR had long opposed offshore processing on PNG and Nauru, a controversial measure adopted by Australia to deter asylum-seekers from attempting to come to the country on unauthorised boats.

"The criticism of Papua New Guinea and Nauru is quite overstated," he said.

"They're working very hard to put their systems in place."

Australia resumed sending asylum-seekers arriving by boat to PNG and Nauru late in 2012, and earlier this year toughened its policy again so that those dispatched there, even if found to be genuine refugees, could never be resettled in Australia.

Morrison, who became minister with the election of conservative Prime Minister Tony Abbott in early September, said offshore processing was still in a "transitional phase" and there would be improvements in coming months.

"In our first 100 days, it's our expectation that we would have more than doubled the capacity of offshore processing and addressed the quite serious funding issues that remained unaddressed in the previous government," he said.

Morrison said the previous Labor government had resumed sending asylum-seekers to Manus and Nauru in a "muddled and incompetent" manner.

"This presented a real challenge particularly for our partners in Nauru and PNG ... who had to deal with constant chopping and changing of Australian government policy," Morrison said.

Last week, a parliamentary committee heard the cost of detaining asylum-seekers at the offshore detention centres was set to top Aus$1 billion (US$912 million) this financial year.

Successive governments have attempted to break people-smuggling rings bringing asylum-seekers to Australia, in a measure to control who comes into the country and prevent drownings at sea after hundreds of deaths.

Refugee advocates have been deeply critical of the Pacific measures, and Australian Greens Senator Sarah Hanson-Young said the latest review demonstrated again why children should not be sent to the camps.

"The government's secret war on refugees is going into overdrive, but the world is watching on," she said.