NOOSA – Late last week the Australian branch of the global organisation Human Rights Watch (HRW) delivered a statement to the United Nations.
The statement was pointed and candidly offered some home truths about how the Australian government treats refugees and its own Indigenous people.
It was written to shine a bright light on Australia's rejection of recommendations to end both mandatory detention of asylum seekers and children in detention.
HRW was established in 1978 to investigate and report on abuses in a range of contexts including refugees, children in need, vulnerable minorities and civilians in war zones.
“Australia paints a picture of itself for the global stage that doesn’t match the reality at home,” says Sophie McNeill, a distinguished foreign correspondent and investigative reporter for the Australian Broadcasting Corporation and now the Australian researcher for HRW.
“Claims that Australia is committed to the human rights of refugees and asylum seekers are absurd so long as harmful offshore detention policies continue and people remain for years in detention,” McNeil said, writing on Twitter (@Sophiemcneill).
She said the Australian government’s claim that “immigration detention of children is always a last resort and children are detained for the shortest practicable time” gives the lie to how it behaves in reality.
“This directly contradicts the harsh treatment of Kopika and Tharnicaa Murugappan who recently spent three years in immigration detention.”
And commenting on Australia’s acceptance that it needs to reduce the over-representation of Indigenous people in the criminal justice system, McNeill suggested this should be viewed sceptically.
“Australia has a history of failing to implement recommendations designed to reduce Indigenous incarceration rates,” she wrote.
It is true that Australia has an appalling record of imprisoning First Nations people.
Since 1989, their imprisonment rate has increased 12 times faster than the rate for non-Aboriginal people.
In December 2019 the Indigenous imprisonment rate was 2,536 prisoners per 100,000 adults compared to the non-Aboriginal population’s 218 prisoners per 100,000.
What follows is the complete Human Rights Watch statement to the United Nations human rights review. For more information on the organisation, you can link to the HRW website here.
And read a review of Sophie McNeil's latest book, 'We Can't Say We Didn't Know', which describes Sophie in these terms:
"Sophie’s compassion goes well beyond her journalistic brief. She becomes part of the story in some remarkable interventions to help people – even complete strangers – whose fate would otherwise be dire."
STATEMENT BY HUMAN RIGHTS WATCH
Human Rights Watch deeply regrets that Australia has rejected recommendations to end the mandatory detention of asylum seekers and close offshore processing centres.
Human Rights Watch and the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees have documented the violence, harsh conditions and inadequate medical care that refugees and asylum seekers endure in Papua New Guinea and Nauru.
Australia remains responsible for the refugees and asylum seekers that it has forcibly transferred under these arrangements and is failing in its obligations under the 1951 Refugee Convention and international human rights law.
It is extremely disappointing that Australia has rejected recommendations to prohibit the detention of children who are refugees or asylum seekers.
Australia’s statement that immigration detention of children is always a last resort does not reflect the reality of Australia’s extremely harsh treatment of children seeking asylum.
In recent weeks, the Australian government granted a temporary visa to six-year-old Kopika Murugappan, after she and her four-year-old sister, Tharnicaa, spent three years in immigration detention.
Both sisters were born in Australia.
While the family’s temporary release from detention is welcome, the Australian government should grant both sisters visas that would allow them to remain permanently in their country of birth, together with their parents.
Because it is recognised under international human rights standards that immigration-related detention is never in the best interest of the child, Australia should release all children from all forms of immigration detention.
Australia’s acceptance of many recommendations to reduce the overrepresentation of First Nations people in the criminal justice system could result in long-needed reforms.
However, Australia has a history of failing to implement recommendations designed to reduce Indigenous incarceration rates.
Thirty years after the landmark Royal Commission into Aboriginal Deaths in Custody, many of its recommendations have not been fully implemented.
It is disappointing that Australia has failed to commit to a federal policy aim to raise the age of criminal responsibility, though some Australian state governments have announced an intention to do so.
Despite Australia’s acceptance of recommendations to reduce Indigenous incarceration rates in its 2015 UPR [Universal Periodic Review], by 2019, Indigenous people, who constitute three percent of the Australian population, comprised 28 percent of its adult prisoners.