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Countries line up to criticise Australia for its treatment of asylum seekers
Sydney Morning Herald - November 10, 2015
But Australia was defiant as dozens of countries called on it to wind back or end boat turn-backs and mandatory detention, and grant refugees their full rights.
Australia's delegation, which included MP Philip Ruddock, insisted that turning back asylum seeker boats and putting asylum seekers in overseas detention centres was necessary, and had saved lives.
The UN Human Rights Council's official review of Australia's human rights policies took place at the Palais des Nations in Geneva on Monday. The scrutiny comes at a time when Australia is vying for a two-year term on the council.
During the review, representatives from more than 100 countries gave recommendations on how Australia should improve its human rights record.
Countries including Brazil, Turkey, Spain, Sweden, Switzerland, Bangladesh – even Rwanda, Iran and North Korea – expressed concern over Australia's treatment of refugees.
The presence of women and children asylum seekers in detention centres came in for particular criticism.
Many countries called for Australia to ratify 'OPCAT' – an international convention against torture, which would expose offshore asylum seeker detention centres to new international oversight and review.
Countries taking part in the review also noted Australia's inadequate treatment of Indigenous people, the high level of violence against women, and the spread of Islamophobia.
France's spokesman Thomas Wagner called for Australia to "develop alternatives to the mandatory detention of asylum seekers, especially when dealing with children".
Germany's representative said Australia should "critically review" offshore processing on Nauru and Manus Island.
He recommended Australia "remove children and their families, and other individuals at risk – in particular survivors of torture and trauma – from immigration detention centres".
Bangladesh's representative said Australia's response to migrant arrivals had "set a poor benchmark", calling for the repeal of mandatory detention for asylum seekers – and she was also concerned by "firsthand reports of discrimination and racism, particularly associated with Islamophobia".
The United States encouraged Australia to "ensure humane treatment and respect for the human rights of asylum seekers, including those processed offshore".
The US said the processing of refugees and asylum seekers should be "closely monitored", though it stopped short of calling for the offshore centres to be closed.
Countries not normally celebrated for their human rights records joined the criticism of Australia.
North Korea's representative said his country was "seriously concerned at continued maltreatment of and violence against the refugees and asylum seekers".
Iran expressed its "deep concern about the mandatory immigration detention regime". And China said Australia should safeguard the human rights of "all refugees and asylum seekers who reach Australian shores".
Most countries acknowledged that Australia had made progress since its first human rights review in 2011.
However Russia pointed out that Australia had fully implemented just 10 per cent of the 145 recommendations it had accepted from that review – a statistic it plucked from this year's report by the Australian Human Rights Commission.
In pre-written responses, Australia's delegation defended government migration policy during the three-hour session.
Steve McGlynn, from the Immigration Department, said Australia was committed to strong border protection measures – and a "critical element is to send a clear message that people smugglers do not offer a path to Australia".
Fewer asylum seeker boats were attempting to reach Australia, so the policy had "saved countless lives at sea", by damaging the people smuggler trade, he said. The drop in boat numbers meant Australia was able to resettle more refugees through other channels.
Mandatory immigration detention was "viewed by Australia as vital to ensuring the integrity of our migration and visa programs", he said.
As of September 30 there were 2044 people in immigration detention, and 113 children in 'alternative detention', down from a peak of almost 2000 in 2013.
Andrew Goledzinowski, ambassador for people smuggling issues, said Australia had "experimented with the free arrival of asylum seekers by boat", which had led to people smuggling networks mobilising a flotilla of more than 800 boats.
"The seas around Australia are wider, deeper and more dangerous than even the Mediterranean," he said. "More than 1200 people of whom we are aware died in the attempt to reach my country.
"Those who criticise (Australia's) policy positions need to appreciate the reasons (for them)." Regional processing "allows us to save lives", he said.
After the session, Mr Ruddock said he thought it was "a very positive performance by Australia and very well-received".
Professor Gillian Triggs, president of the Australian Human Rights Commission, said countries had been "courteous", and there had been recognition of schemes such as the NDIS and the Children's Commissioner
But there were "definitely common themes" of concern, she said. "About 75 per cent of recommendations were about detention centres, mandatory detention especially in relation to children and the stop-the-boats policy that failed to recognise the rights of asylum seekers... that was probably the majority view," she said.
"There is real international concern about Australia's asylum-seeker policies... (there is) a disappointment that we have strayed from our international obligations."
She said Australia's response in the room had been, at some points, "deeply misleading".
Immigration Minister Peter Dutton described the UN process as "a farce", despite the fact that Australia is bidding for a place on the same council that undertook the review.
"My favourite contribution to this UN process was from North Korea – a bastion of human rights – with their representative reported to have said that his country was 'seriously concerned at continued maltreatment of and violence against the refugees and asylum seekers'," Mr Dutton said. "This shows what a farce this process is."
He said that what the government was "proud of is the fact that we have been able to stop people drowning at sea, we have removed children from detention and been able to close 13 of the 17 detention centres down opened by Labor".
Another observer, Professor Sarah Joseph of Monash University's Castan Centre for Human Rights Law, said Australia would find it hard to reject the very specific recommendations of the Council.
"Given the sheer number of recommendations, this is going to be another point of pressure on the government," she said.
The HRC's recommendations from the review will be made public on Thursday. They are not binding under international law. (with David Wroe)