(Sydney) Many refugees who come uninvited to Australia are compelled to do so because they cannot find effective protection anywhere else, Human Rights Watch said in a new report released to mark International Human Rights Day.

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 refugees.

"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 there.

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 influx situations.

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 rights.

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.