UN accuses Australia of 'demonising asylum seekers'

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Friday, May 27, 2011

File photo of Navi Pillay in 2009
Image: Antônio Cruz (Agência Brasil).

The United Nations Human Rights Commissioner has questioned Australia's tough asylum seeker policies this week, stating that Australia's mandatory detention regime has "cast a shadow" over its human rights record. Navi Pillay, the UN's Human Rights watchdog, was particularly critical of Prime Minister Julia Gillard's asylum seeker trade deal with Malaysia.

This bilateral agreement, if signed, would see 800 refugees attempting to get to Australia by boat immediately transported to Malaysia instead. In return, Australia would take 4,000 genuine refugees from Malaysia over a space of four years. However, Malaysia has not signed either the international Refugee Convention, or the Convention Against Torture. In an interview with the ABC, Ms Pillay voiced concern over this, stating that Australia may "violate refugee law" by sending asylum seekers to a country where no laws are in place to protect them.

Pillay, a South African former anti-apartheid protester, also voiced distress over the omnipresence of political "demonising" of these asylum seekers stating, "[t]he consequence of the constant political refrain that Australia is being 'flooded' by people who are 'queue jumpers' has resulted in a stigmatisation of an entire group of people, irrespective of where they have come from or what dangers they have fled".

In her six-day trip to Australia, the UN Human Rights Commissioner visited two detention centres and said she was overwhelmed with the "grim despondency" of asylum seekers, many of whom wait over 18 months to have their case assessed.

The mistreatment of refugees was today reinforced with the release of an Australian Rights Commission report, which revealed extensive problems of self-harm and depression among detainees at the Villawood Detention Centre in Sydney.