BRISBANE, Australia — The United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees says Australia's plan to send asylum seekers arriving by boat to neighbouring Papua New Guinea be may be in breach of international law.

The UN refugee agency says the so-called "PNG solution" raises "raises serious, and so far unanswered, protection questions."

Under the Regional Resettlement Arrangement announced last week by Australian Prime Minister Kevin Rudd, all asylum seekers arriving by boat would be send to PNG, north of Australia. There, they would be processed and those found to be genuine refugees allowed to resettle in PNG.

The policy has been widely criticised by both Rudd's opposition and supporters, for being too harsh, and ultimately ineffective at stopping a marked increase in boat arrivals in recent months.

According to Australia's ABC, around 700 asylum seekers have arrived at Christmas Island — Australia's offshore processing facility to the northwest of the country — since the deal was announced.

The UNHCR, in its first comments about the policy, described it as tantamount to Australia deflecting its responsibilities under the international refugee convention.

A statement published on its website pointed to "significant shortcomings" in PNG's ability to process asylum seekers legally and humanely:

"These include a lack of national capacity and expertise in processing, and poor physical conditions within open-ended, mandatory and arbitrary detention settings. This can be harmful to the physical and psycho-social wellbeing of transferees, particularly families and children."

The refugee agency said it was "troubled" by the absence of suitable safeguards. Australia has a shared responsibility with PNG to ensure adequate standards, the UNHCR said, including "access to sustainable durable solutions in Australia itself."

"We're concerned that the net effect of the measures is that for all intents and purposes Australia ceases to be an asylum country under the convention for anybody coming to the country other than by air," UNHCR regional representative Ricard Towle told ABC's 'The World Today.'

"This is a very significant shift and change from the practices used by states around the world."

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