Immigration

Australia’s policies on asylum seekers and media freedom criticised in new human rights report

This July 24, 2018, Naoero Public Health Centre, where MSF provided mental health services to asylum seekers, refugees and Nauruan locals. Source: Medecins Sans Frontieres

A new report on human rights has taken Australia to task over a range of issues, including media freedom and Indigenous rights.

Media freedom, Indigenous rights and aged care in Australia are some of the issues raised in an annual report released by Human Rights Watch. 

The World Report 2020 is the 30th report released by Human Rights Watch reviewing human rights practices in nearly 100 countries, including Australia.

The New York-based groups' review of Australia has focused on policies concerning asylum seekers, disability, aged care and Indigenous affairs among others.

The report is critical of Australia's asylum seeker and refugee policies, saying medical facilities in Papua New Guinea and Nauru are not dealing properly with the complex health needs of those in offshore detention.

Australia’s offshore detention of asylum seekers was under review as part of the Human Rights report.
Australia’s offshore detention of asylum seekers was under review as part of the Human Rights report.
AAP (from archive)


As of December 2019, 466 asylum seekers remained in offshore detention facilities.

Professor of Mental Health at the University of South Australia Nicholas Procter said prolonged uncertainty is continuing to impact those who have yet to be resettled. 

"What we know is something that we have known for some time. That's the relationship of prolonged uncertainty particularly for people with a past history of trauma and existing mental health problems," he told SBS News.



Professor Procter said mental illness was common in those in offshore detention.

“It's devastating for many of those people who feel trapped by their circumstances," he said.

The report states at least 12 refugees and asylum seekers have died in Australia’s offshore processing system since 2013, six of them due to suicide.

In February 2019, parliament passed a law facilitating transfers of detainees requiring medical treatment from offshore locations to Australia, but the so-called Medevac Law law was repealed in December, a move Human Rights Watch says leaves refugees and asylum seekers in limbo.

 

Professor Procter said the Medevac laws had provided extra safeguards for those in offshore detention.

"It takes away that extra layer of scrutiny and independent thinking. What governments ultimately should seek to obtain in any medical and health-related matter, is the best independent thinking around the nature and scope of medical and physical concerns," he said.

Disabilities highlighted

While Human Rights Watch welcomed the announcement in April of a royal commission into violence, abuse, neglect, and exploitation of people with disabilities, it said more needed to be done to support people with disabilities in the prison system. 

It said more than half of Australia's prison population had some kind of disability.

More than half of Australia's prison population had some kind of disability, according to the report.
More than half of Australia's prison population had some kind of disability, according to the report.
AAP

The NGO also condemned the high rate of Indigenous Australians in the criminal justice system, and especially Indigenous children - who are 26 times more likely to be detained than non-Indigenous children.

The routine use of drugs to control people in aged care facilities came under scrutiny, an issue also raised during the Royal Commission into Aged Care Quality and Safety which began in 2019.

Ian Henschke, the CEO of National Seniors Australia, said the use of psychotropic drugs in the aged care system remains a major problem.

"What we know is many aged care facilities are using psychotropic drugs, not necessarily to control symptoms but to control behaviour," he said.

"The Royal Commission heard from a leading gerontologist that it was possible to treat people without such an extensive use of drugs in aged care. And this is a real concern. What concerns us the most is the fact this has become normalised in Australia."

Mr Henschke said the Royal Commission is already having an impact.

"What is really good about what is happening at the moment is that we are having a Royal Commission and the Royal Commission is acting and causing a lot of change in aged care," he said.

Media under fire

Freedom of expression also came under scrutiny as part of the report, with police raids on a government official and journalists raised.

HRW criticised what it said was broadly drafted security laws that have been used against journalists, lawyers and whistleblowers, citing the police raid of the home of a journalist in relation to her story on a leaked plan to expand government surveillance.

MEAA federal president Marcus Strom has attacked the AFP's actions in raiding the home of a journalist.
MEAA federal president Marcus Strom has attacked the AFP's actions in raiding the home of a journalist.
AAP

President of the Media Entertainment and Arts Alliance Marcus Strom said there was a trend towards avoidance by the government.

"There has also been a general approach from the government to treat pretty ordinary government procedures as secret. And obfuscation and avoidance by various governments from media scrutiny," he said.

"Reporters without Borders has downgraded Australia in terms of press freedom as well over the past 12 months so this is a worrying trend."

Internationally, the 2020 report said China posed an increasing threat to the global system for protecting human rights, citing the mass detention of ethnic minorities as just one example, and the soft response from the international community.

In the United States, the report criticised the ability of shooters to obtain military-style weapons to carry out killings, adding there was growing public support for stronger federal laws restricting some access to guns.

The report also described global anti-government protests in Algeria, Sudan, Lebanon, Iraq, Bolivia, Russia, and Hong Kong as 'impressive' but criticised democratic governments' response to the protests, describing it as 'lukewarm and selective'.

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