Humane refugee policies not a 'death sentence': Human Rights Watch


Forming refugee policies that respect basic human rights is 'not a death sentence', Human Rights Watch's Asia director advises Australia.

Australia's refugee policy will meet international standards when a political party realises doing so won't sentence it to death, says Human Rights Watch Asia director Brad Adams.

"When Australia's refugee policies will change is when a political party realises this is not a suicide note to have a refugee policy that is in line with international law," Human Rights Watch Asia director Brad Adams told SBS News.

Mr Adams provided the example of former prime minister Kevin Rudd who was elected in 2007, despite a less draconian refugee policy.

The Human Rights Watch (HRW) 2016 report, released on 27 January, blasted Australia for its treatment of refugees, noting its continued failure to uphold its obligations to the Convention Relating to the Status of Refugees, Convention on the Rights of the Child and Convention against Torture.

"The world looks at Australia as a sporting nation, having beautiful weather [but also as a nation that is] really nasty to refugees," Mr Adam said.


The country's Migration Act currently renders "unlawful non-citizens", both adults and children, to mandatory and indefinite detention, which the UN, local government-funded bodies - such as the Australian Human Rights Commission - and a long list of other countries such as the US, Spain, Sweden, Canada, Germany and Turkey criticise.

"Australia needs to seriously rethink its abusive refugee policies and take steps to restore its international standing as a rights-respecting country," said Mr Adams.

The HRW report lambasts the government for its treatment of children on Nauru detention centre, citing an inquiry by the Department of Immigration and Border Protection that found evidence of children and adults being sexually and physically assaulted. 

The report also detailed allegations of rape and sexual assault of 33 asylum seekers on Nauru. 

Mr Adams says the federal government’s attack on Australia’s Human Rights Commission president Gillian Triggs in February 2015, after she released a report condemning the government's policies on the mandatory detention of children, reveals it knows its policies are unjustified.

"The mandatory detention of children is so unacceptable that when the head of the Human Rights Commission Gillian Triggs released a report into the effects of detention on children, the government reacted very angrily," he said. "The irrationality of this response shows how much the government is wrong."

The HRW report criticises the Australian Border Force Act, effective since 2015. It mandates anyone who works for the government - including health and humanitarian workers - who discloses information gained while undertaking work at detention centres, to prison.

It accuses Australia of endangering lives when it turned boats carrying asylum seekers back to Indonesia.

The archipelago alleged Australian officials paid more than US$30,000 to people smugglers to turn a boat back to its shores.



The Greens have backed the report, calling for closures of offshore detentions on Nauru and Manus Island.

"We have a permanent seat reserved at the table of global human rights abusers," Greens immigration spokeswoman Sarah Hanson-Young said.

The Department of Immigration and Border Protection told SBS News its treatment of refugees is humane.

"The coalition was elected with a clear mandate to stop the illegal boats and stem [the] flow of illegal maritime arrivals, more than 1,200 of whom were lost at sea between 2008 and 2013," a department spokesperson said.

"Operation Sovereign Borders [OSB] has stopped the boats and in so doing has ended the deaths at sea and restored integrity to Australia’s immigration system.

The department argues its refugee policies do not fly above the radar of the law.

"OSB is conducted consistent with Australian domestic law and Australia’s obligations under international law," they said.

The HRW report also expressed concern over Indigenous rights, same-sex marriage equality, counterterrorism laws and the treatment of people with disabilities in Australia.

Australia has announced its candidacy for a seat at the UN Human Rights Council in 2018. 


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