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New UN report on torture urges changes to Australian refugee policy

The Refugee Council of Australia (RCOA) has urged the Australian Government to act on a new United Nations Committee Against Torture report which highlights breaches of international law in Australia’s treatment of refugees. 

The UN Committee’s Concluding observations on Australia’s sixth period review lists a series of concerns about the ill-treatment of people held in immigration detention centres and subject to Australia’s offshore processing and turnback policies. 

RCOA chief executive officer Paul Power said the UN Committee report was the first UN report since the Albanese Government came to office in May to assess aspects of Australian refugee policy. 

“We hope that the Albanese Government will take UN Committee’s recommendations seriously and address long-standing international concerns about Australia’s breaches of international law,” Mr Power said. “It is well beyond time to head the advice of the UN and reform Australia’s unlawful treatment of refugees and people seeking asylum.” 

The Committee noted a number of serious concerns, including the policy of “mandatory detention, including for children, overcrowding, inadequate health care, including mental health care, and assault, sexual abuse, self-harm, ill-treatment and suspicious deaths”. It also was “particularly concerned about what appears to be the use of detention powers as a general deterrent against unlawful entry rather than in response to an individual risk, and the continued application of mandatory detention in respect of children and unaccompanied minors”. 

Rebutting the claim of Australia to avoid responsibility for people in offshore detention, the Committee found that Australia maintains legal responsibility because they remain under Australia’s effective control as they were transferred by Australia “to centres run with its financial aid and with the involvement of private contractors of its choice”. It urged the Australian Government to end offshore processing and transfer all people to Australia. 

In its findings on refugee policies, the Committee recommended that Australia: 

  • Ensure that all asylum seekers and other persons in need of international protection who attempt to arrive or arrive in the State party, regardless of their mode of arrival, have access to fair and efficient refugee status determination procedures and non-refoulement determinations. 
  • Ensure that no one may be expelled, returned or extradited to another State where there are substantial grounds for believing that he or she would run a personal and foreseeable risk of being subjected to torture. 
  • Review its policy and practices during interceptions at sea, including “on water” assessments, to ensure that all persons under the State party’s jurisdiction who are in need of international protection have access to fair and efficient asylum procedures within the territory of the State party, including access to independent, qualified and free-of-charge legal assistance during the entire asylum procedure and a real opportunity to effectively challenge any adverse decisions adopted concerning their claims.  
  • Repeal the legal provisions establishing the mandatory detention of persons entering its territory irregularly. 
  • Ensure that detention is only applied as a last resort, when determined to be strictly necessary and proportionate in the light of the individual’s circumstances, and for as short a period as possible. 
  • Establish statutory time limits for immigration detention and ensure access to an effective judicial remedy to review the necessity of the detention. 
  • End its policy of offshore processing of asylum claims, transfer all migrants, asylum seekers and refugees to mainland Australia and process any remaining asylum claims while guaranteeing all procedural safeguards. 
  • Adopt the necessary measures to guarantee that all asylum seekers or persons in need of international protection who are under its effective control are afforded the same standards of protection against violations of the Convention regardless of their mode and/or date of arrival. 
  • Investigate human rights violations in the regional processing centres, prosecute the alleged perpetrators, punish them appropriately if convicted and provide full reparation to the victims. 
  • Consider closing down the Christmas Island detention centre. 

RCOA, the Human Rights Law Centre and the Kaldor Centre for International Refugee Law made a joint submission to the Committee to highlight community concerns about torture and cruel treatment in Australia’s refugee protection and immigration detention regimes. 

The Report of the UN Committee against Torture can be found online here. 

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