'Very, very shocking': UN official slams situation on Nauru

File image from 2016 showing a protest by Australian refugee activists. Source: AAP

A senior UN official says he's concerned about the "shocking" mental health situation of detainees on Nauru.

A senior United Nations official has slammed the Australian government over the offshore detention of asylum seekers, saying he's concerned about the "shocking" mental health situation of detainees on Nauru.

Indrika Ratwatte, the Asia and Pacific director for United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), said on Tuesday the issue of the refugees on Nauru should be prioritised, describing the mental health of the asylum seekers he saw as "very, very shocking."

"We must make every effort to get refugees out of this situation."

"I have worked in quite a few places over the years in emergency situations. I most recently was in Bangladesh, where we have a million refugees who have crossed over from Myanmar. And looking at the conditions here - particularly, the mental-health situation - it's very, very shocking.

"Clinical psychiatrists and others have said that this is one of the places where you have the highest level of stress and trauma and post-traumatic stress amongst the population."

Mr Ratwatte made the comments in Canberra after returning from an inspection of Australia's offshore processing facilities on Nauru, where more than 1200 asylum seekers have been languishing since 2014.

He said 40 children had spent their entire lives in detention on Nauru and another 60 had spent half their lives there.

Mr Ratwatte said the growing trend to self-harm, and children as young as 10 attempting suicide, is "symptomatic of the despair and hopelessness that is prevailing there."

"Nobody should be in a position to seek such dire recourse."

He cited the fear of family separation as a major mental health issue, giving as an example a 14-year-old girl said to be in a catatonic state on Nauru after being separated from her mother who was taken for medical treatment is in Australia.

"These situations need to be avoided," he said.

He has also urged Australia to rethink its offshore detention policy.

"While there is a perspective that this is a policy that takes people away from harm and death at sea, we should make sure that approach does not lead to individuals eventually being harmed on land," Mr Ratwatte said.

One effort the government has made to get people out of offshore processing centres was signing a refugee deal in 2016 with then-United States president Barack Obama.

About a hundred refugees have since been resettled in that country under the deal.

But Mr Ratwatte said he would like to see more action taken, such as rethinking the refusal of New Zealand's offer to accept 150 refugees from the Manus Island detention centre.

"While we are encouraged by the governments of the United States of America and Australia coming to an agreement where a significant number of refugees will find solutions, at the same time, there's going to be around a thousand refugees who will still be in need of solutions."

Mr Ratwatte's comments come as Peter Dutton has called for the government to give special attention to a number of white South African farmers.

Mr Dutton says the farmers are facing persecution, due to alleged elevated rates of violence against them associated with possible land redistribution.

Mr Ratwatte says protections should be reserved for those who are "truly vulnerable."

"(From the) UNHCR perspective, we do encourage that resettlement opportunities that are for refugees and humanitarian quotas, that are for deserving cases, should not be impacted by these decisions on migration, and those should be preserved for those who are truly vulnerable and are in need of protection and solutions."

With AAP.

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