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Australia’s Controversial Treatment of Refugees

Australia has long been considered an international human rights leader. Right now, the country is competing with France and Spain for a seat on the United Nations Human Rights Council. However, according to the Human Rights Watch 2016 World Report, the country has dropped the ball when it comes to its treatment of refugees and asylum seekers.

Outsourcing Obligations and Detention of Refugees

While the Human Rights Watch 2016 World Report praised Australia for protecting civil and political liberties, the report found that the country has exhibited a “failure to respect international standards for asylum seekers and refugees.”

One of Australia’s most controversial practices is sending refugees and asylum seekers to other countries with fewer resources and poor human rights records. Critics of this practice say that Australia is outsourcing its obligations regarding refugees and asylum seekers to other countries. Australia has returned boats of asylum seekers to Sri Lanka and Vietnam. The country has also towed boats carrying asylum seekers back to Indonesia, and has been accused of paying smugglers to return boats of asylum seekers to Indonesia.

Another abusive practice is Australia’s placement of asylum seekers and refugees in detention centers. As of October 2015, hundreds of men, women, and children were being held in offshore detention centers on Manus Island and Nauru. Australia began sending refugees to Manus Island three years ago. Not a single refugee has been resettled since then.

Even more troubling than the use of detention centers are the conditions found in them. For example, in Nauru, an independent review found evidence that both adults and children had been physically and sexually assaulted while at the detention center. Furthermore, a parliamentary senate inquiry concluded that the facilities at Nauru were “not adequate, appropriate or safe.”

The same parliamentary senate inquiry also recommended removing children from detention centers as soon as possible. This recommendation is supported by an Australian Human Rights Commission (AHRC) report, which examined conditions in immigration detention centers on the Australian mainland and those on Christmas Island. The report found that prolonged detention had a severe negative impact on the mental health and development of children.

Troubling Legislation

The legislation responsible for the creation of Australia’s refugee detention centers is called the Migration Act, which requires mandatory and indefinite detention of all “unlawful non-citizens,” including children. The Migration Act is obviously troubling from a human rights perspective.

An additional piece of legislation called the Australian Border Force Act is equally problematic. The law was passed by parliament in May 2015 and makes it illegal for anyone working directly or indirectly for the Department of Immigration and Border Protection to disclose information obtained during their work. Violating this law is punishable by two years in prison.

The Australian Border Force Act is concerning because it prevents individuals, such as doctors and aid workers, from acting as whistle-blowers in exposing abuse and criminal behavior in refugee detention centers. This law, combined with making Nauru and Manus Island off-limits to journalists and human rights groups, limits discussion of important refugee issues.

Heavily Criticized Practices and Policies

Recently, the United Nations, foreign governments, and even government-funded inquiries within Australia have criticized many of Australia’s practices and policies for dealing with refugees and asylum seekers.

Disturbingly, Australian government officials have responded by dismissing the criticism and even attacking the credibility of the entities making the criticisms. Former Prime Minister Tony Abbott went as far as to say that the country was “sick of being lectured” by the United Nations, after the UN special rapporteur on torture, Juan Mendez, found Australia to be in violation of the Convention against Torture.

As Australia is considered for a seat on the Human Rights Council, we are reminded that Australia was once an international human rights leader. In order to regain this designation, the country must stop outsourcing refugees and asylum seekers to other countries and begin offering fair and timely determination of refugee status. Given the current state of affairs in Australia and the world, it’s time to look at these misguided policies and practices for what they are, and that is abusive. It’s time for Australia to reevaluate the way it treats people in vulnerable positions.

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