• The orange disposable lifeboat that washed up on central Java's Karangjambe Beach in February, 2014.
The government insists the return of 37 asylum seekers meets Australia's obligations, despite a UN report criticising the policy of turning back asylum seeker boats.
28 Nov 2014 - 6:17 PM  UPDATED 29 Nov 2014 - 7:07 PM

The Australian government has rejected suggestions from the UN that Australia's asylum seeker policies are embarrassing.

The UN Committee on Torture has slammed Australia's treatment of asylum seekers, warning harsh conditions in its offshore detention centres are causing serious physical and mental suffering.

"I don't find our border protections embarrassing because they're saving lives," Immigration Minister Scott Morrison said.

He said it is the previous Labor government should be embarrassed by its handling of the asylum seeker issue.

"I tell you what's embarassing is 1500 people coming on 800 boats and 1200 people dying because a government didn't have the ticker to deal with itheir border protection problem. That's embarrassing."

Minister Morrison dismisses UN criticism on boat turnbacks

The UN Committee on Torture also believes the policy of turning back asylum seeker boats raises the risk that some people could be returned to a place of persecution.

The report's release comes as the federal government confirmed it turned back an asylum seeker boat northwest of the Cocos (Keeling) Islands on November 15.

Thirty-seven Sri Lankan asylum seekers returned by Australian authorities have been arrested, but one will be assessed for refugee status.

Immigration Minister Scott Morrison said the operation reflected efforts by the Australian and Sri Lankan governments to disrupt the people-smuggling venture.

Despite UN criticism of the boat turnbacks policy, Mr Morrison said it complied with Australia's obligations under international law.

"There is no greater deterrent to protecting our boats and stopping boats coming to Australia then by stopping the boats physically," he said.

'Australia's asylum policy causing harm'

But the Human Rights Law Centre says the UN's report show Australia's practice of intercepting and returning asylum seekers is causing harm.

"On asylum seekers, Australia is acting in absolute defiance of international law and is being condemned on the world stage for doing so," the Human Rights Law Centre's Daniel Webb said.

Australia is not allowed to torture people or send people back to a place where they're in danger of being tortured, said Mr Webb, who briefed the UN committee in Geneva.

"(The) findings make it clear that intercepting and returning asylum seekers without fairly and thoroughly assessing their refugee claims is fundamentally incompatible with this vitally important obligation," he said.

In a report released in Geneva early Saturday Australian time, the committee's recommendations included that Australia to end mandatory detention and to adopt policies ensuring all asylum seekers had their claims properly and promptly assessed.

The UN committee earlier this month reviewed Australia's record as a signatory to the Convention against Torture and Other Cruel, Inhuman or Degrading Treatment or Punishment.

This is the first such assessment since 2008.

Also reviewed were Sweden, Ukraine, Venezuela, Burundi, USA, Croatia and Kazakhstan.

High Indigenous incarceration rates a concern: UN

The committee was concerned at Australia's policy of transferring asylum seekers boat arrivals to the centres on Manus Island in PNG and Nauru in the Pacific.

It cited harsh conditions under mandatory detention, with overcrowding, inadequate health care and allegations of sexual abuse and ill-treatment.

"The combination of these harsh conditions, the protracted periods of closed detention and the uncertainty about the future reportedly creates serious physical and mental pain and suffering," the report said.

Concerns were also raised at the high rate of incarceration of indigenous people, who comprise around 27 per cent of Australia's prison population while constituting just two to three per cent of the total population.

The committee said Australia should increase efforts to address over-representation of indigenous people in prisons, in particular underlying causes.

"It should also review mandatory sentencing laws with a view to abolishing them, giving judges the necessary discretion to determine relevant individual circumstances," it said.

The committee also said Australia should consider abolishing the use of tasers, increasingly used by police as an alternative to firearms when dealing with suspected offenders.