Demonstrators march during a protest to demand humane treatment of asylum seekers and refugees, in Sydney on July 21, 2018.

© 2018 Peter Parks/AFP/Getty Images
(Sydney) – The Australian government’s refusal to end its offshore warehousing of asylum seekers and refugees is hurting Australia’s global reputation on human rights, Human Rights Watch said today in its World Report 2019.

About 1,100 asylum seekers and refugees remain on Manus Island in Papua New Guinea and in Nauru. Most have been there since 2013, and many have deteriorating mental health exacerbated by years of detention and uncertainty about their futures. The government also delayed or denied hundreds of medical transfers from the islands to Australia for emergency treatment, ignoring doctors’ recommendations, and did not enact a bill that would facilitate future transfers of refugees and asylum seekers. The government did respond to political pressure and an effective advocacy campaign about the situation on the islands for children, transferring more than 100 children and their families to Australia.

“After more than five years, Australia’s offshore processing policy has proven to be nothing more than a cruel experiment in using suffering as a deterrent to seeking asylum,” said Elaine Pearson, Australia director at Human Rights Watch. “If Australia wants credibility as a country that respects human decency, let alone human rights, then it should reverse this policy immediately.”

In the 674-page World Report 2019, its 29th edition, Human Rights Watch reviewed human rights practices in more than 100 countries. In his introductory essay, Executive Director Kenneth Roth says that the populists spreading hatred and intolerance in many countries are spawning a resistance. New alliances of rights-respecting governments, often prompted and joined by civic groups and the public, are raising the cost of autocratic excess. Their successes illustrate the possibility of defending human rights – indeed, the responsibility to do so – even in darker times.

In 2018, Australia took its place on the United Nations Human Rights Council for a three-year term. Australia delivered a strong statement about Myanmar’s atrocities against ethnic Rohingya Muslims. Other countries at the council criticized Australia for its treatment of refugees and asylum seekers offshore.

Australia’s sweeping new encryption law will allow security agencies to order technology firms to take vaguely described actions to enable access to encrypted data, without adequate judicial oversight and other critical safeguards. The broadly drafted powers could enable authorities to force messaging apps to send users’ fake software updates that would break encryption, secretly add third parties to users’ chats, or turn phones or smart speakers into live listening devices.

People with disabilities are dramatically overrepresented in Australia’s criminal justice system, constituting almost half of people entering prison. Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people are 13 times more likely to be incarcerated than others. A 2018 Human Rights Watch report found that people with disabilities in prisons across Australia are at serious risk of sexual and physical violence, and can spend weeks, months, or even years locked in solitary confinement. One man with a mental health condition has spent more than 19 years in solitary confinement in a maximum security unit.

In September, Prime Minister Scott Morrison announced a Royal Commission into the quality and safety of care for older people, following numerous reports of abuse in Australian nursing homes and an Australian Broadcasting Corporation investigation into the aged care industry.

“Australia’s new encryption law, by weakening encryption for some, will weaken it for everyone,” Pearson said.