Refugee Council of Australia
Parliament House, Canberra

Keeping the Australian Government accountable: a guide

Australian Human Rights Commission

The main role of the Australian Human Rights Commission, an independent statutory body, is to promote and protect human rights in Australia. This covers a broad range of issues, including when people are detained, the conditions of their detention, and how they are treated in Australia. As well, the Commission is responsible for issues that may affect refugees and people seeking asylum, such as racism and racial discrimination, the rights of children, and the rights of people with a disability.

The Commission has several functions in relation to refugees and people seeking asylum. These include:

  • promoting understanding of human rights generally in Australia, including in relation to refugees and people seeking asylum
  • researching, and making relevant recommendations, to promote the enjoyment of human rights
  • examining laws and policies affecting human rights, including through submissions to inquiries
  • intervening in court proceedings
  • inquiring into individual complaints of breaches of human rights, and
  • monitoring breaches of human rights in immigration detention.

Although the Commission has a broad role, the law setting it up defines ‘human rights’ in a limited way.

Role of the Human Rights Commission (speech)
The Australian Human Rights Commission Act 1986 (Cth)

General human rights education, including in relation to refugees

The Commission has an important role in promoting the understanding of human rights in Australia. It produces a range of materials for human rights education and has produced relevant information in relation to refugee policy in the past.

Asylum seekers and refugees guide (2015)

However, there appear to be no current educational resources on this topic. The Commission has also promoted understanding of refugee issues through commenting in the media, making speeches, and participating in public forums.

Research and recommendations

The Commission’s role includes researching refugee issues and making relevant recommendations. It has produced valuable briefs, for example, on key issues affecting refugees and people seeking asylum.

Most importantly, the Commission can also inquire into and report on topics that raise human rights concerns, and these reports are tabled in Parliament. These are often high-profile inquiries, and those affected and their advocates can provide information and tell their stories to the Commission. The Commission usually makes recommendations and the Australian Government responds, indicating whether it is accepting or rejecting those recommendations.

Below are some of the recent publications of the Commission on issues affecting refugees and people seeking asylum:

Management of COVID-19 risks in immigration detention (2021)

Lives on hold: Refugees and asylum seekers in the ‘Legacy Caseload’ (2019)
Risk management in immigration detention (2019)
Pathways to Protection: A human rights-based response to the flight of asylum seekers by sea (2016)

Examining laws and policies for compliance with human rights

The Commission regularly provides submissions and gives evidence in inquiries affecting human rights, including those relevant to refugees.

Submissions on refugees and migration

Individual complaints

Individuals can also complain to the Commission. Relevantly, the Commission can look at complaints about:

  • the Commonwealth government and its agencies breaching human rights
  • discrimination, harassment and bullying based on a person’s race, sex, gender identity, disability, or age
  • discrimination, harassment and bullying in employment, based on a person’s religion, political opinion or social origin.

Complaints about disability and racial discrimination (especially in relation to the Internet and media coverage) are common. A relatively small number of complaints are also made about immigration detention (as a breach of Article 9 of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights).

How to make a complaint

You can make a complaint no matter where you live in Australia, and it does not cost anything. If you are not sure if you can make a complaint, you can call the Commission or email them. You can make a complaint online or post the complaint.

You can make a complaint using forms online, available in Word or PDF. You can email or post the forms.

Make a complaint
Call them using the Translating and Interpreter Service (call 131 450)
Call them using the National Relay Service if you find it hard to hear: 1300 555 727 (Speak and Listen))

Someone can make the complaint for you. You will need to give them permission by signing a form and sending it to the Commission.

Give someone permission to make a complaint for you

What will happen

If you make a complaint, usually the Commission will contact the person, department or agency you are complaining about to ask for their comments and other information. The Commission can decide not to investigate or to stop investigating the complaint, but will tell you why.

Most complaints are resolved through a process called ‘conciliation’. The Commission is an impartial party and brings parties together to help them decide how best to resolve the complaint. The process is informal and you do not need a lawyer.

If this process doesn’t work or is inappropriate, and it is a case of a breach of human rights (for example, if a person is complaining about detention), the Commission can prepare a report, including recommendations for action, for the Attorney-General. In 2020-2021, only 6 complaints were referred for reporting.

These reports can be tabled in Parliament, but the person who made the complaint can be anonymous. Many of these complaints relate to immigration detention, and include a response by the Department.

Importantly, even where the Commission finds your human rights have been breached, the government is not required to do anything.

Information on making complaints (Australian Human Rights Commission)
Understanding conciliation (Australian Human Rights Commission)
Reports into breaches of human rights (Australian Human Rights Commission)

Monitoring immigration detention

The Commission has helped to develop minimum standards for the protection of human rights in immigration detention.

The Commission also regularly visits, monitors and reports on the conditions of people in immigration detention. It usually makes recommendations to the Government after these visits, and the Government responds to these but does not need to accept these recommendations.

Reports on visits to immigration detention facilities

The Commission has also led consultations following the Australian Government’s ratification of the Optional Protocol to the Convention against Torture. This Protocol establishes an independent National Preventive Mechanism (NPM) which has the responsibility of ensuring the inspection of all detention facilities in countries that have ratified the Protocol. However, Australia has designated the Commonwealth Ombudsman as the NPM Coordinator in Australia.

Optional Protocol to the Convention against Torture (Australian Human Rights Commission)

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