The 94-page report, "By Invitation Only:
Australian Asylum Policy," is based on eight months of investigation
and challenges the Australian government's policy on asylum seekers
as a breach of the country's international obligations to protect
"These people are not 'queue jumpers' -many are refugees in need
of protection who have been failed by the system at every stage,"
said Rory Mungoven, global advocacy director for Human Rights Watch.
"They should not be treated differently from the refugees Australia
invites to resettle from refugee camps overseas."
Human Rights Watch found that many asylum seekers from
Afghanistan, Iraq and Iran were still at risk in the countries
through which they passed - such as Jordan or Indonesia - and were
unable to access the offices of United Nations High Commissioner for
Refugees or foreign embassies to apply for resettlement.
Human Rights Watch's evidence shows that the Australian Defence
Forces violated the rights of asylum seekers on board boats
intercepted in October 2001. They detained the single men under
inhumane conditions, beat several of them with batons and used other
unnecessary force against vulnerable refugee families. These
findings contradict the report of the Australian Senate Select
Committee on a Certain Maritime Incident [issued on October 23,
2002] that praised the humanitarian conduct of the naval operations.
Unlike the Senate Committee, which could not collect refugee
testimony, Human Rights Watch interviewed dozens of refugees present
during the naval operations.
After being refused entry to Australia, the intercepted asylum
seekers were sent to the Pacific states of Nauru and Papua New
Guinea, where they have been arbitrarily detained and have had no
access to legal assistance or an independent appeal body to
re-examine their claims. Other asylum seekers have been warehoused
in camps in Indonesia. The Human Rights Watch report criticizes
Australia's so-called "Pacific Solution" by highlighting serious
failings in the protection available to refugees and asylum seekers
in these three countries.
Human Rights Watch urged the Australian government to resettle
those who remain in the Pacific detention centers and to refrain
from forcing rejected asylum seekers back to countries where
conditions do not allow for return in safety and dignity.
Human Rights Watch warned that asylum seekers detained in the
newly built facility on Christmas Island are likely to face the same
abuses - arbitrary detention, lack of due process in asylum
procedures and denial of family reunification. Christmas Island, an
Australian territory in the Indian Ocean, was "excised" by the
government last year, meaning that the right to apply for protection
in Australia has been removed from any asylum seeker who arrives
Human Rights Watch also appealed to the Australian government not
to force refugees it had already accepted to re-apply for asylum
when their current visas (called "Temporary Protection Visas")
expire. Such a policy is contrary to all accepted state practice and
to UN guidance on reserving Temporary Protection for use in mass
If the Australian Department of Immigration insists on
reassessing their status, Human Rights Watch believes that
individual refugees should at least be given a fair chance to
explain why they were not safe in a country nearer to home or en
route to Australia. Under Australian law, the mere fact that they
spent more than seven days in a country deemed to be safe before
arriving in Australia, or that there were offices of the UN High
Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) in a country through which they
passed, may be used as grounds for denying them important human
Human Rights Watch urged UNHCR to tell the Australian government
and people in plain terms that its presence in transit countries
such as Jordan or Indonesia is no substitute for the protection that
should be offered by states.
"Australia's handling of these refugees is even more shameful
when you learn the dangers they faced on the way here," said
Mungoven. "You can't say one group of refugees is more deserving
than another, just because of how they arrived. That's the
Australian government's game, but it's not international law."
This is the first full report ever issued on Australia by Human
Rights Watch, an international monitoring group based in New York.
Human Rights Watch has issued some 1,100 reports since 1978 on
systematic human rights violations in Europe, Asia, the Middle East,
Africa and the Americas. Many of these reports have documented
violations of the rights of refugees and internally displaced
persons around the world.