Refugee activists have welcomed the UN Human Rights Committee's findings that Australia has committed serious violations of international law.
Lawyers and refugee activists have welcomed the findings of the United Nations Human Rights Committee that says Australia has committed 143 serious violations of international law.
The committee found the indefinite detention of 46 refugees due to negative security assessments was illegal and amounts to inhumane or degrading treatment.
Australia has been directed to release the detained refugees on appropriate conditions and to provide rehabilitation and compensation.
A negative security assessment means a genuine refugee can be held indefinitely, without knowing the details of why they are deemed a threat to security.
That process, along with 142 other serious findings, has now been deemed a contravention of international law by the United Nations Human Rights Committee.
The lawyer who represented the group is barrister and Professor of International Law at the University of Sydney, Ben Saul.
Professor Saul says it's the largest complaint ever made against Australia to the Committee and that the findings are a major embarrassment for the country.
"You know this is pretty embarrassing for Australia that when we go about the world criticising other countries for their human rights performance, when we're trying to improve the situation in Syria through our work on the UN Security Council when at the same time we don't have our own house in order."
The complaints were made to the Committee in August 2011 and in February last year on behalf of 46 people who were recognised by Australia as refugees, but who were still kept in detention after receiving adverse security assessments from ASIO.
Australia was found to have breached its obligations under a binding treaty which it accepted - the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights.
The Committee found 46 cases of illegal detention due to Australia's inability to inform detainees of the specific reasons why they posed a threat to security.
It also found that refugees had no effective judicial remedies for illegal detention.
Professor Saul says it's very significant that the Committee has found that such detention amounts to inhuman or degrading treatment.
"We put a whole lot of evidence to the UN committee about the mental health state of the detainees. At least five of whom had attempted suicide in the last year or two alone. if people are detained for protracted periods of six months or more, and certainly 12 months of more, in circumstances where their detention is potentially indefinite, they have no idea what's going to happen to them and their families in the future, and where they've been accused of being national security risks but without being given any reasons or idea of why they're considered to be risk-these are pretty difficult circumstances."
The Committee has directed Australia to release the refugees from detention on appropriate conditions and to provide rehabilitation and compensation.
It has also asked that Australia report to it within 180 days on the steps that it has taken to remedy the violations of international law.
Chairman of the UN Committee, Sir Nigel Rodley, says he's optimistic that Australia will heed the recommendations.
"I can only hope that Australia will do this. I think it would be inappropriate for me to speculate one way or another other than to have the optimistic expectation."
The UN Human Rights Committee is a quasi-judicial body of independent experts from a range of countries.
Its decisions aren't legally binding but are regarded as authoritative legal interpretations binding obligations under the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights.
Professor Saul says the findings of the Committee should work to internationally embarrass Australia into action.
"The UN doesn't obviously have a police force. It has no power to fine Australia or to lock up Australian officials. This is a process which works through embarrassment, public shaming of Australia, bringing diplomatic pressure to bear in order to try to improve Australia's performance."
Most of the 46 refugees are still in detention, having been held now for up to four years.
The biggest group are reportedly ethnic Tamils from Sri Lanka, with others from Myanmar and Kuwait.
Spokesman for the Tamil Refugee Council, Trevor Grant says the UN Committee's findings illustrate that the Australian government has to make changes.
He says the findings are likely to be treated cautiously by those refugees who are indefinitely detained.
"They don't have any confidence in the rule of law and the presumption of innocence which is one of the pillars of the rule of law in this country. They have no right to have confidence. They do go up and down with their emotions on different things but they have learned not to treat anything too seriously when it involves the Australian government."
Earlier this year, a family of five had their negative security assessment overturned after recommendations from an independent review of ASIO's assessment.
The UN's finding that Australia's handling of the refugees amounts to arbitrary detention has been dismissed by the Coalition.
Opposition spokesman on Immigration Scott Morrison told the ABC national security is the paramount issue.
"Well there's a contradiction here. Under the Refugee Convention someone can be found not to be a refugee if there are national security risks involved. And while each of the specific cases are not in front of me I am aware of the broader issue. Which is that where there are national security issues at stake and ASIO has not provided that clearance and there's a process for that to be undertaken, then people can't just be released into the community."
The Australian Greens say the report shows that the world is watching how Australia treats refugees and that the government's actions will not go unchecked.
A separate complaint involving five more refugees has been made to the UN Committee and is yet to be decided.