By Matt Siegel
SYDNEY (Reuters) - Australia's immigration minister dismissed on Wednesday United Nations' criticism of its asylum seeker policy, even as fresh evidence emerged of abuses at one of its detention centers in Papua New Guinea.
Immigration Minister Scott Morrison hit back after the regional representative for U.N. refugee agency UNHCR said that Australia's policy of sending asylum seekers to third countries for lengthy detention might violate its treaty obligations.
"I'm not surprised. They have always opposed our turn back policy, but I will tell you what Australia's national shame was when it comes to this issue: almost 1,200 people dead at sea," Morrison said in an interview with Sky News.
"That's the national shame. That's the regional shame," he said, referring to the number of asylum seekers believed to have died at sea in recent years attempting the perilous crossing.
He was responding to remarks by James Lynch, the UNHCR's regional representative for Southeast Asia, whom the Australian Broadcasting Corporation quoted criticizing the policy during a meeting in Indonesia this week.
Australia uses offshore detention centers to process would-be refugees trying to reach the country, often in unsafe boats after paying people smugglers in Indonesia.
Since coming to power last year, Prime Minister Tony Abbott has instituted a policy of turning asylum seeker boats around at sea and sending them back to Indonesia.
"There are obligations as a signatory to the 1951 Convention and the 1967 protocol, which say: if you intercept in your territorial waters, you should allow those in need of protection to have access to the asylum system," UNHCR's Lynch said.
Canberra's tough stance on asylum seekers has been criticized by the United Nations and other groups as illegal and inhumane.
The policy has come under fresh scrutiny after footage released this week by Fairfax Media appeared to show local guards at the detention center on Manus Island in Papua New Guinea savagely beating detainees a day before a riot there in February left one asylum seeker dead and more than 60 injured.
Australia is investigating the role in the riot of the staff hired in Papua New Guinea for Britain's G4S, the world's biggest security group, which was responsible for security at the facility.
But Morrison dismissed calls from opposition politicians to release more information about the riot and said that any evidence should be handed over to authorities conducting the investigation.
"I want to get to the bottom of this. I want to make sure I know exactly what has happened," he said.
(Reporting by Matt Siegel; Editing by Simon Cameron-Moore)