Australia’s treatment of asylum seekers has been condemned by Human Rights Watch, which described the country’s immigration policies as 'draconian'.
In its annual report issued this week, the international organisation said that Australia was failing to respect international standards regarding the protection of asylum seekers and refugees.
In contrast to the country’s solid record of protecting civil and political rights, the report stated that the Australian Government’s “harsh” approach towards border security had led to what workers called “unsafe” conditions.
“The detention centres are overcrowded and dirty,” the report stated.
“Asylum claims are not processed in a fair, transparent, or expedient manner, with significant cost to detainees’ physical and mental health.
“According to media reports, gay asylum seekers detained on Manus Island fear persecution and sexual assault. They also fear resettlement in Papua New Guinea, where consensual adult same-sex relations are criminalized."
It also comes one day after Australia’s High Court found that the government didn't act illegally when it detained 157 Tamil asylum seekers aboard a Customs boat for almost a month.
Immigration dominating foreign policy
The Human Rights Watch’s 660-page report also stated that the government border security focus also impacted upon international relations, undermining Australia’s ability to call for stronger human rights protections abroad and dominating foreign policy.
“Besides trade and security, a large driver of the Australian government’s foreign policy is its single-minded focus on ensuring that all asylum seekers or refugees are processed at offshore facilities,” it read.
“The government has muted its criticism of authoritarian governments in Sri Lanka and Cambodia in recent years, apparently in hopes of winning the support of such governments for its refugee policies.”
The report cited Australia’s decision to not co-sponsor a UN Human Rights Council resolution to establish an international inquiry into human rights abuses in Sri Lanka.
It also stated that the government was “ignoring concerns about safety and the lack of capacity of the Cambodian government”, in the wake of 2014 negotiations for the country to accept refugees from Nauru for resettlement.
In September 2014, incoming UN High Commissioner for Human Rights Zeid Ra’ad Al-Hussein stated that Australia’s policies are “leading to a chain of human rights violations, including arbitrary detention and possible torture following return to home countries.”
Immigration Minister Peter Dutton has defended the policies in recent weeks, saying that protests would not change the government’s policy on border security.
“We as a government are absolutely determined to make sure that people who arrive by boat will not be settled in this country," he said.
Former Immigration Minister Scott Morrison has also rejected criticism in relation to human rights previously.
"The most flagrant abuse of human rights I am aware of is the beheading and crucifying of people in Syria and Iraq, where Australia is seeking to relieve the humanitarian crisis," he said.
Rights abuses and the jihadist rise
The report also criticised other Western governments for “ignoring human rights”, with Human Rights Watch director Kenneth Roth stating that doing so while global security risks "fails to get at the root causes that gave rise to many of these threats,"
“In this difficult moment, they seem to argue, human rights must be put on the back burner, a luxury for less trying times,” he said.
Governments that flout human rights during crises are not only violating international law, but are following "short-sighted and counter-productive" strategies, he added.
"Protecting human rights and enabling people to have a say in how their governments address the crises will be key to their resolution,” he said.
The emergence of the Islamic State (IS) group was in part fuelled by the 2003 US-led invasion of Iraq and by the West's failure to address atrocities in Syria, the report stated.
The Iraq invasion led to a security vacuum and abuses in Abu Ghraib prison and Guantanamo Bay.
The need for security in the digital age has also triggered concerns for Human Rights Watch, alarmed by daily data snooping by governments targeting hundreds of millions of people.
Senior HRW Internet researcher Cynthia Wong said the US and Britain remain the leaders in the field, having "thrown away any notion of proportionality."
With few privacy protections built in, she warned, "a truly Orwellian scenario could unfold."
The report comes as Australia’s parliament continues hearings over a new data retention bill, which on Thursday heard concerns that ASIO may be holding onto electronic data it should be destroying.