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United Nations Condemns Australia Over 'Inhuman' Treatment of Asylum Seekers

The United Nations Committee Against Torture said that conditions at offshore detention centers were cruel and unlawful, and that a proposed migration law would violate torture conventions.

by Sally Hayden
Nov 12 2014, 11:35am

Photo via Reuters

Australia has been admonished by the United Nations Committee Against Torture over its treatment of asylum seekers in Pacific island detention centers, where the panel said conditions amounted to "cruel, inhuman or unlawful punishment."

Officials were grilled at a committee hearing in Geneva over the Australian government's controversial asylum policies, which have become increasingly strict under Prime Minister Tony Abbott and have drawn strong criticism from human rights and refugee advocates.

Under particular scrutiny was the Migration Amendment Bill currently before the country's parliament, which the committee heard would allow for people to be returned to countries where they faced a significant risk of torture — a violation of international law. 

If passed, the bill would raise the level of risk of torture necessary before an asylum seeker can be granted refugee status from a "real chance" to "more likely than not."

Condemning the bill, the committee concluded that: "Human rights are given to human beings because they are born as human beings.

"If you introduce the notion of a risk which is 'more likely than not', you accept that some risk of torture is acceptable."

The Australian government has said it does not believe the bill clashes with its human rights obligations.

The committee also examined the practice of holding asylum seekers in offshore processing centers and of intercepting boats at sea and forcing them to return to Indonesia or even Sri Lanka — a country whose government has been accused of widespread human rights abuses. 

Australia drew sharp words from the UN's refugee agency after revealing in July that it had handed 41 Sri Lankans — including four Tamils — back to Sri Lankan authorities in a transfer at sea. Two Sri Lankan asylum seekers told Australian TV in October that they had been tortured after being returned, a claim denied by the Sri Lankan government. 

In another case that attracted considerable media attention, Hazara Afghan refugee Zainullah Naseri, forcibly deported in August, was reportedly detained and tortured by the Taliban on his return. 

The country voluntarily ratified the Convention Against Torture in 1989. Along with forbidding the practice of torture, it also means that a signatory cannot forcibly send someone to a place where they could be subjected to torture.

This is the first time Australia has faced a UN assessment on the issue since 2008. The committee will release a report card on November 28.

In response to some of the criticisms leveled at them by the committee, the Australian delegation insisted that the country's policies were in line with international law, but said that conditions at offshore detention centers were not its responsibility.

Stephen Bouwhuis, a representative for the attorney general, said: "Conditions in regional processing centres are a matter for the countries in which those centres are established."

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Australia has a long and controversial history regarding its treatment of immigrants. The "White Australia" policy was one of the first acts passed when the current state of Australia was formed in 1901. It was fuelled by the idea that Australia was an "outpost of the British empire" — and placed huge obstacles in the path of any potential immigrants who weren't white. Arguing in favor of the bill, the then-Prime Minister Edmund Barton said: "The doctrine of the equality of man was never intended to apply to the equality of the Englishman and the Chinaman."

Various forms of this law were in place until 1973. 

Guy Goodwin-Gill is a professor of international refugee law at Oxford University, and was the United Nations high commissioner for refugees' representative in Australia between 1978 and 1983. Speaking to VICE News, he said that at that time Australia was making a conscious effort to move beyond its past. He said the country was also then keen to engage with its neighbours — "Malaysia, Indonesia, the Philippines" — whereas "today it seems to treat them with contempt."

Goodwin-Gill said that he feels the government have fueled fear of immigrants for political reasons, and that the current immigration policy is a "vote-getter."

"Politicians have very little long-term vision and Australia of course is a sad case in many respects because it has three-year parliaments, so once you get in you as a politician want to grab the headlines for something that looks macho and tough."

"Listening to some of the language that's spoken today about refugees and asylum seekers," Goodwin-Gill said, "it's just like drifting back to the old days."

He added that the lack of information being provided by those in power was suspect. "Wherever you have secrecy there's something that the government doesn't want you to see.

"I think it's fairly clear that the way in which Australia treats refugees and asylum seekers who they intercept at sea goes way beyond what their international obligations would allow them to do."

A system of mandatory detention for non-citizens lacking visas has been in place since 1992, before which asylum seekers had their claims evaluated from within a community. Detention has increasingly been done offshore. The Australian government, under then-Prime Minister Kevin Rudd, made a deal in 2013 to send any asylum seekers granted refugee status to Papua New Guinea. In return, the government said that they would pay "resettlement costs," as well as giving aid to the country to go towards hospitals and universities.

They recently made another deal with Cambodia, who will resettle hundreds of asylum seekers in return for $35 million of aid.

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A study published in the Medical Journal of Australia found that more than 80 percent of paediatricians felt that mandatory detention of children constitutes child abuse, and strongly disagreed with offshore processing. Around 40 percent of Australia's refugee intake are less than 20 years old.

In an interview with VICE, Chris Iacono, a former Salvation Army support worker, described the Manus Island detention center in Papua New Guinea as being like "a human zoo." "The men were held in small, gated compounds with padlocks and chains… I can remember that one time a man attempted suicide and nobody knew where the key was go to in and open the gate."

Staff were required to sign a confidentiality agreement, he claimed, and were regularly warned that if they spoke out they could lose their job, be fined, or even sent to jail.

Another offshore facility is on Christmas Island, located 2,600km north-west of Perth. The island's website refers to it as the "Galapagos of the Indian Ocean… an island full of natural wonders." The website's history section makes no mention of the detention camp located on it.

A nurse that worked at the Christmas Island center told the Guardian that patients were often not referred to by their names — instead labelled by their boat number: e.g. "673/RYB/039."

A page of the Australian government's "storyboard," apparently aimed at dissuading Afghan refugees from traveling to the country.

Immigration reform has long been a political issue. Last November, the Australian government revealed a new ad campaign — a cartoon storyboard aimed at deterring Afghan refugees from arriving to the country, though it has since been removed from their website. The accompanying slogan was: "No way. They will not make Australia home."

Operation Sovereign Borders is one of the policies that Abbott's government won last year's election on. It aims to "stop the boats" and combat people smuggling by putting the military in charge of guarding the country's borders, and forcing boats to return to Indonesia or even Sri Lanka. Headed by Lieutenant General Angus John Campbell, a senior officer in the Australian Defence Force, it has been operative since September 2013. The number of asylum seekers arriving by boat has drastically reduced over the past year, but the government won't reveal clear statistics on exactly how many are being turned away.

Most of those who arrive by boat come from Iran, Iraq, Myanmar, Sri Lanka, or Afghanistan, and travel overland until they reach Indonesia. They say the risk persecution at home. Many have died during the journey.

In Australia it is common to hear people refer to "Fobs", or people who are "fresh off the boat." This focus on asylum seekers who arrive by water, rather than by air, has been commented on by many observers. Antonio Guterres, the UN High Commissioner for Refugees, called this as Australia's "strange" obsession with boats.

Guterres said for Australians arriving in the country in any other manner is seen as acceptable, but when boats are involved "we enter into a very, very, very dramatic thing. "

One of the most overt demonstrations of this "obsession" was demonstrated by the creation of reality TV programme 'Go Back to Where You Came From', which ran for two series, and saw a total of twelve Australian citizens recreate the trips of asylum seekers.

The program, which attempted to raise understanding around one of the country's most discussed political issues, saw participants experience Malaysian immigration raids, and visit Jordan, Iraq, and Somalia.

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Follow Sally Hayden on Twitter: @sallyhayd