Australia’s treatment of asylum seekers under its tough mandatory detention policy has been criticized by a leading United Nations representative. At the end of a six-day visit, Navi Pillay, U.N. High Commissioner for Human Rights, says the policy breaches Australia’s international human rights obligations. She has also warned that Canberra’s plan to send 800 asylum seekers to Malaysia is likely to violate refugee law.
During her brief trip to Australia, the U.N. high commissioner spent time at two immigration detention centers in the northern city, Darwin.
Pillay says she saw what she calls “the grim despondency of asylum seekers” who have spent months waiting to be released.
The senior U.N. official, who was invited by the government, also took aim at Australia’s plans to send hundreds of asylum seekers to Malaysia to ease pressure on overcrowded detention camps and to try to stop a steady flow of boat people.
Ministers say the agreement, under which the Malaysians will send to Australia 4,000 long-term refugees whose claims for protection have been approved, will disrupt the activities of people smugglers. The hope is that, by denying criminal gangs the chance to guarantee their fee-paying passengers direct passage to Australia, their business will dry up.
However, Pillay believes the plan is illegal.
“If Australia is serious about this policy of sending 800 people out to Malaysia, then I think it violates refugee law," she said. "They cannot send individuals to a country that has not ratified the torture convention, the convention on refugees. So there are no protections for individuals in Malaysia. And, Australia, of all people, that upholds the standards internationally should not collaborate with these kinds of schemes.”
Pillay has held what she describes as "frank and forthright" talks on the Malaysian plan with Australian Foreign Minister Kevin Rudd.
The flow of boat people arriving in Australia’s isolated northern waters has become a great irritant to the Labor government. It is battling allegations from its political opponents that it has lost control of Australia’s borders - an issue that resonates with many voters.
The U.N. high commissioner for human rights also visited an aboriginal community in Yarrabah, outside Cairns in Queensland. She says, although Australia “has a strong history of commitment to human rights,” its treatment of its indigenous peoples is poor.
Pillay says efforts to help the nation’s most disadvantaged people are being undermined by policies that have failed to recognize the right to self-determination for Australia’s aborigines.
They make up about two percent of the population, but suffer disproportionately high rates of ill-health, imprisonment and unemployment.