Australia has been urged to provide greater support to refugees and Indigenous people. Image by Diego Fedele/AAP PHOTOS
  • politics

Australia called out over refugee and Indigenous rights

January 12, 2024

Australia’s mistreatment of refugees and asylum seekers as well as the over representation of Indigenous people in custody have been called out by an international human rights group.

Human Rights Watch declared Australia’s reputation “tarnished by some significant human rights concerns” despite being a vibrant democracy that largely protects civil and political rights.

“This includes the cruel treatment of refugees and asylum seekers as well as its failure to address systemic discrimination against First Nations people,” the group said in a global report released on Friday.

Australia's 'cruel' treatment of refugees
 Australia’s treatment of asylum seekers and refugees has been described as cruel. Image by Eoin Blackwell/AAP PHOTOS 

The organisation’s Australia researcher Annabelle Hennessy criticised the federal government for continuing its more than decade-long offshore detention regime.

In September 2023, Australian authorities sent a group of 11 asylum seekers to detention on Nauru and another 12 people in November.

The human rights group noted the government allocated $1.5 billion over the next four years to maintain detaining asylum seekers outside of its territory.

Iindigenous flag and signs of people who died in custody (file image)
 At least 19 Indigenous people died in custody in 2023, including a 16-year-old boy who self-harmed. Image by Mick Tsikas/AAP PHOTOS 

Its report mentioned the defeat of the Indigenous voice referendum, which would have enshrined a First Nations advisory body in the constitution.

“While this was unsuccessful in every state, Australia’s state and federal governments remain obligated to uphold the rights of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people, which should remain a priority,” Human Rights Watch said. 

The over representation of Indigenous people in the adult prison system, making up one-third of inmates despite only being three per cent of the population, was also called out. 

At least 19 Indigenous people died in custody in 2023, including a 16-year-old who took his own life after being detained in prolonged solitary confinement in pre-trial detention.

Serious concerns about the treatment of children in custody and the use of chemical restraints in aged care were yet to be seriously addressed by the government, the group said.

Alleged war crimes by Australian troops
 Human Rights Watch welcomed Investigations into alleged war crimes committed by Australian troops. Image by Dave Hunt/AAP PHOTOS 

Investigations into alleged war crimes committed by Australian troops in Afghanistan were described in the report as “important developments for justice”.

“The families of the victims have been waiting for over a decade for prompt and adequate compensation,” it said.

The suspension of Queensland’s human rights laws to allow police to detain children indefinitely, royal commission findings into people with disabilities facing serious neglect and abuse, and a lack of concrete actions to tackle human rights abuses in China were also mentioned.

 Australia was praised for securing the release of reporter Cheng Lei (left) from detention in China. Image by HANDOUT/DEPARTMENT OF FOREIGN AFFAIRS AND TRADE (DFAT) 

The report pointed to Australia remaining the only Western nation without a human rights law or constitutional charter.

The human rights group praised Australia for securing the release of journalist Cheng Lei from detention in China as well as democracy activist Chau Van Kham, who spent four years in a Vietnamese prison.

“The Australian government has had some achievements in 2023 advocating for human rights on the international stage but needs to do more, particularly in the Asia-Pacific,” the group said.

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