Police watch a group of around twenty protesters occupy Australian Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull's electoral office, demanding the end to the policy of offshore detention of asylum seekers, in Sydney, Australia on October 14, 2015. 

© 2015 Reuters

(Sydney) – The Australian government’s mandatory detention of asylum seekers and abuses in offshore processing took a heavy human toll over the past year, Human Rights Watch said today in its World Report 2016. Australia’s refugee policies were criticized by United Nations experts, foreign governments, and government-funded inquiries and have hurt the country’s global reputation on human rights.

In the 659-page World Report 2016, its 26th edition, Human Rights Watch reviews human rights practices in more than 90 countries. In his introductory essay, Executive Director Kenneth Roth writes that the spread of terrorist attacks beyond the Middle East and the huge flows of refugees spawned by repression and conflict led many governments to curtail rights in misguided efforts to protect their security. At the same time, authoritarian governments throughout the world, fearful of peaceful dissent that is often magnified by social media, embarked on the most intense crackdown on independent groups in recent times.

“Despite the international outcry over its refugee policies, Australia did little to redeem its reputation in 2015,” said Brad Adams, Asia director. “Australia needs to seriously rethink its abusive refugee policies and take steps to restore its international standing as a rights-respecting country.”

Australia maintained a policy of mandatory detention for all unauthorized arrivals and continued its harsh boat turn-back policy, returning migrants and asylum seekers to countries including Indonesia and Vietnam. An independent review into detention conditions and the Australian Human Rights Commission reported allegations of sexual and physical assaults on children and adults in immigration detention centers.

The government acted to limit public discussion of important refugee and migrant issues. In May, a law was passed making it a crime punishable by two years for detention center service providers to disclose “protected information.” In September, the UN expert on the human rights of migrants postponed a visit to Australia, citing protection concerns under the new Border Force Act and the lack of government cooperation to access detention centers.

In 2015, the Australian government adopted new counterterrorism measures that raised serious human right concerns, especially regarding rights to due process. The Allegiance Act allows authorities to revoke Australian citizenship from dual nationals as young as 14 for involvement in terrorist acts, without adequate legal safeguards. The government also introduced laws that would allow control orders to be applied to children as young as 14 and requires telecommunication companies to retain metadata for up to two years for access by Australian intelligence agencies.

“Measures such as stripping citizenship from dual nationals without basic legal safeguards are major steps backwards for Australia,” Adams said. “While Australia has a responsibility to protect those on its soil from harm, it shouldn’t be undermining respect for basic rights and staining its international reputation.”

Australia announced its candidacy for a seat at the UN Human Rights Council in 2018. However, in its bilateral relationships, Australia rarely spoke out publicly on abuses, especially with countries with which it cooperates on border protection matters or where it has significant trade relationships.

“Australia’s Human Rights Council candidacy provides an opportunity to influence global and regional players to promote respect for human rights,” Adams said. “But until Australia addresses its domestic human rights record, the country’s leaders are undermining their ability to call for stronger rights protections abroad.”