Following Anthony Albanese’s election as prime minister, Australia’s first change of government in nine years led to some improvement in human rights, including more ambitious greenhouse gas emission targets to address climate change. However, many rights concerns remain, such as the significant overrepresentation of First Nations people in the criminal justice system and mandatory offshore processing and “turn-backs” of asylum seekers who arrive by boat.
In the wake of devastating floods and heatwaves, climate change was a key concern for many Australians in the 2022 election, with a record number of politicians elected on ambitious climate justice platforms. The Albanese government’s continued support for the expansion of fossil fuel industries contributes to the global climate crisis and undermines the right to a healthy environment. In 2022, several Australian states introduced new laws targeting peaceful climate and environmental protesters with disproportionate punishments and excessive bail conditions.
Asylum Seekers and Refugees
2022 marked ten years since the Australian government reintroduced offshore processing of asylum seekers who arrive by boat. At time of writing, approximately 200 refugees and asylum seekers remained in abroad in Papua New Guinea and Nauru, with more than 1,045 people admitted to the United States under an Australia-US resettlement deal.
In March, the Australian and New Zealand governments announced an arrangement to allow refugees currently in Nauru or who were transferred from Nauru or Papua New Guinea to Australia temporarily, to resettle in New Zealand, covering up to 150 people per year over three years.
By turning back a boat carrying asylum seekers just days after the election, the Albanese government signaled its intention to continue the “turn-back” policy of interdicting boats and summarily turning them to the high seas or returning individuals to countries of departure or origin. The new government has since confirmed that it has no plans to end the policy of offshore processing of asylum seekers.
In January, authorities detained tennis star Novak Djokovic at the Park Hotel in Melbourne after cancelling his visa, bringing international attention to the plight of approximately 30 asylum seekers and refugees held in the same hotel, many of whom had faced more than eight years of detention and uncertainty under Australia’s offshore processing policy. In April, authorities released the remaining asylum seekers and refugees held at the hotel.
The Albanese government fulfilled its pledge to allow an ethnic Tamil family, asylum seekers who had been detained on Christmas Island, to return home to the town of Biloela and granted them permanent residency.
More than 4,000 Ukrainian asylum seekers arrived in Australia since Russia invaded Ukraine in February. The government allocated 31,500 humanitarian and family visa places to Afghan nationals over five years, with nearly 6,000 visas granted.
Indigenous people are significantly overrepresented in the criminal justice system, with Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people comprising 29 percent of Australia’s adult prison population, but just 3 percent of the national population.
At least 17 Indigenous people died in custody in Australia in 2022. An inquest into the death in custody of Indigenous woman Veronica Nelson in Victoria uncovered that she allegedly screamed for help for hours, but authorities did not send her to a hospital for medical treatment, and then found her dead in her cell.
The state government in Western Australia refused to install air conditioning in residential cells at Roebourne Regional Prison, despite temperatures reaching a record high of 50.5 degrees Celsius (123 degrees Fahrenheit) and the prison inspector saying the conditions posed a significant risk to prisoner health. Ninety percent of the prisoner population at Roebourne are First Nations people. In November, following public pressure from the Aboriginal Legal Service, Human Rights Watch, and others, the state government backtracked and said it would install air conditioning, but not until next summer.
In October, the United Nations Subcommittee on Prevention of Torture suspended its visit to Australia due to obstructions it encountered in visiting several detention sites in Australia and accessing requested documentation.
The Albanese government has committed to holding a referendum to enshrine in the Australian constitution a body to advise the parliament on Indigenous issues, to be known as the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Voice. First Nations people are currently not recognized in the Australian Constitution.
Indigenous children are 20 times more likely to be incarcerated than non-Indigenous children.
In Australia, the minimum age of criminal responsibility is 10, lower than the internationally accepted age of 14. An estimated 444 children under the age of 14 were imprisoned in the past year across Australia. The Australian Labor Party has pledged to support the review of the minimum age of criminal responsibility. The Australian Capital Territory has committed to raise the age from 10 to 14. In November, the Northern Territory government passed legislation to raise the age to 12. Tasmania has committed to raise the minimum age of detention from 10 to 14 years.
The Western Australia prison inspector concluded that the conditions in Banksia Hill Juvenile Detention Centre did not meet international standards and “breached human rights,” with children not receiving the minimum time out of cell required. Prison authorities then moved 17 children from Banksia Hill to a maximum-security adult prison. Multiple incidents of self-harm and suicide attempts were reported after the transfer.
In May, Human Rights Watch reported that the education ministry of New South Wales had violated children’s right to privacy and other rights through eight education technology products it had authorized for children’s education during the pandemic. All products, except one, surveilled or had the capacity to surveil children online, outside school hours, and deep into their private lives.
The Royal Commission into Violence, Abuse, Neglect and Exploitation of People with a Disability continued its hearings in 2022, with Human Rights Watch giving evidence to the commission on how prisoners with disabilities are disproportionately held in solitary confinement for 22 hours a day, for weeks, months, and sometimes even years. People with disabilities often fall prey to violence or resort to self-harm because proper support is lacking.
Western Australia’s prisons remain damaging and at times deadly for people with disabilities. A Human Rights Watch analysis of deaths in those prisons from 2010-2020 found that about 60 percent of adult prisoners who died in jail had a disability. In 2022, there have been two reported suicides of Aboriginal men in Western Australian prisons. Due to limited resources, mental health services in prisons remain inadequate.
Rights of Older People
Staff working in Australian nursing homes warned that staffing shortages during the Omicron Covid-19 wave saw lower standards of care that risked the survival of frail residents.
Many Australian nursing homes continue to use dangerous drugs, often without informed consent, to control the behavior of older people with dementia, known as “chemical restraint.” A Human Rights Watch analysis in March found some aged care facilities did not meet compliance standards and failed to regularly monitor the use of drugs that are administered for chemical restraint, failed to provide individual care plans with ways to manage behavior without the use of chemical restraints, and did not provide alternative strategies to ensure that chemical restraint is a last resort.
Freedom of Expression
In April, the state of New South Wales introduced new laws and penalties specifically targeting climate protesters, punishing them with hefty fines and up to two years prison for protesting without permission.
Human Rights Watch research found authorities in New South Wales were disproportionately punishing climate protesters, and that magistrates were imposing harsh disproportionate penalties and bail conditions on climate protesters in violation of their rights. New anti-protest laws passed in the states of Victoria and Tasmania also invoke severe penalties for non-violent protest.
In March, the Australian Parliament’s Joint Committee on Intelligence and Security released a report examining foreign interference at Australian universities, highlighting concerns over Chinese government supporters threatening and intimidating pro-democracy students from China as well as university staff. It recommended mechanisms to report incidents of foreign interference, deterrence for students who report on activities of fellow students to foreign governments, and closer scrutiny of student associations linked to authoritarian governments.
Terrorism and Counterterrorism
The Albanese government repatriated 17 Australian citizens -- 13 children and 4 women -- who had been arbitrarily detained in harsh conditions in camps and prisons in northeast Syria, as suspected members of the Islamic State (ISIS) and their relatives. At time of writing, approximately 60 Australians, including 30 children and 16 women, still await repatriation.
In July, one of the detainees, an Australian teenager forced as a child to live under the Islamic State, was reported to have died earlier that year in a prison in Northeast Syria.
Climate Change Policy and Impacts
Australia is one of the world’s largest exporters of coal and gas and Australian fossil fuel companies benefit from significant tax breaks. In the 2021-22 budget period, Australian federal and state governments’ total fossil fuel subsidies are estimated to have cost A$11.6 billion (US$7.4 billion), up A$1.3 billion (US$830 million) compared to the previous year.
Prime Minister Albanese pledged in May to end divisive political “climate wars” and make Australia a “renewable energy superpower.”
In September, Australia’s parliament passed a bill legislating a 43 percent emissions reduction target by 2030. The Labor government gave strong support to renewable energy projects, and for the first time, an Australian environmental minister said she would reject a new coal mine because of its possible impact on the nearby Great Barrier Reef.
However, the Albanese government is still actively supporting the expansion of fossil fuels industries, denying responsibility for emissions created by the vast amounts of coal and gas Australia exports overseas and flatly ruling out any discussion on banning new fossil fuel projects.
In September, in a ground-breaking decision, the United Nations Human Rights Committee found that the Australian government had violated the rights of Indigenous Torres Strait Islanders by failing to adequately protect them against the adverse impacts of climate change. This failure violated their rights to enjoy their culture and be free from arbitrary interferences with their private life, family, and home. The committee ordered the government to pay adequate compensation to the claimants and secure the communities continued safe existence on the islands, as well as avoiding similar violations in the future.
Australia’s relationship with the Chinese government remained strained, while the country refocuses its trade and diplomatic relationships with members of the Quad, (Australia, Japan, India, the United States) and Southeast Asian and Pacific nations as part of an effort to counter Beijing's influence in the region. With the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) countries, the Australian government has deferred to principles of ASEAN centrality and “maintaining a region which is peaceful, stable and prosperous, in which sovereignty is respected.” It avoids public discussion of rights concerns with the ASEAN member governments of Vietnam, Philippines, Cambodia, and Thailand. The same reluctance to publicly discuss human rights issues is also evident in Canberra’s relationship with the Modi government in India.
Australia used its “Magnitsky-style” sanctions legislation for the first time in March, targeting Russian individuals responsible for the mistreatment and death of Russian lawyer Sergei Magnitsky. Since then, the government has enacted no new targeted sanctions under the regime.
Unlike the United Kingdom, United States, Canada, and the European Union, the Australian government has not imposed targeted sanctions on senior military leaders and entities in Myanmar responsible for the February 2021 coup and ensuing rights violations.
Australia joined other UN member countries in condemning China’s serious abuses in Xinjiang, following the groundbreaking report by UN High Commissioner for Human Rights Michelle Bachelet.
However, the Australian government has not joined the EU, UK, US, and Canada in imposing targeted sanctions on senior Chinese officials who have been accused of serious human rights violations against Uyghurs and other Turkic Muslim communities in Xinjiang.
In opposition, the Australian Labor Party pledged to strengthen Australia’s Modern Slavery Act to address forced labor around the world, including in Xinjiang. The current legislation under review does not respond to calls to introduce stand-alone legislation similar to the US that blocks the import of goods made with forced labor, both from Xinjiang and other locations inside and outside of China.
Australia has not endorsed the Safe Schools Declaration, an intergovernmental pledge now supported by 112 countries to protect education in times of conflict.