28 Jan 2016

Refugee policy taints Australia's reputation - NGO

5:59 pm on 28 January 2016

Australia's human rights reputation has taken another blow, with a damning critique of the government's refugee policies by a leading international rights NGO.

Nauru protest

Hundreds of children are detained in Nauru. Photo: supplied

According to Human Rights Watch's World Report 2016, Australia's mandatory detention of asylum seekers - and abuses in its offshore processing centres, including on Nauru and in Papua New Guinea (PNG) - took a heavy human toll over the past year.

Allegations of sexual and physical assaults on detainees at the centres, including on children held on Nauru, have been reported by the Australian Human Rights Commission.

Australia's refugee-related policies have been criticised by UN experts, foreign governments and even domestically through senate inquiries.

Despite this international outcry, Human Rights Watch Asia director Brad Adams said Canberra had done little to redeem the country's reputation.

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

Speaking out

The government moved to limit public discussion of issues around its treatment of asylum seekers last year by passing a law that made it a crime for detention centre service providers to disclose "protected information".

Under the Border Force Act, those speaking out about the treatment of detainees at detention centres such as those on Nauru and Manus Island in PNG face two years' imprisonment.

This has not deterred Sydney paediatrician David Isaacs, who has publicly described the treatment of asylum seekers in Nauru as torture.

This week, he challenged Australian Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull to prosecute him under the anti-whistle blower legislation.

Dr Isaacs worked at the Nauru detention centre for a stint in 2014 and said all the children he treated were traumatised, and some had been abused and were committing self-harm.

Evidence given at last year's Australian senate inquiry into detention conditions at the offshore processing centres suggested the abuses had not abated.

"So we are torturing people by keeping them in prolonged detention when they have committed no crime without letting them know what is going to happen to them," Dr Isaacs said.

"Can you imagine what that does to your mental health? This is the Australian government committing torture, and then they silence critics."

Rights curtailed

Australia's government is not the only one implementing hard-line policies on asylum seekers.

Human Rights Watch's World Report noted that, in the past year, "huge flows of refugees spawned by repression and conflict led many governments to curtail rights in misguided efforts to protect their security".

Yet, while Australia was vying for a seat at the UN Human Rights Council, it recently displayed obstructiveness over adherence to UN human rights standards in its offshore processing policy.

Last September, the UN expert on the human rights of migrants postponed a visit to Australia, citing a lack of government co-operation to access detention centres as well as concerns over the implications of the new Border Force Act.

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