Australia’s flawed human rights record


Christmas Island immigration detention centre – cc wikimedia

There’s not too much coincidence about the timing of China’s social media campaign, accusing Australia of human rights abuses.

The photo-shopped meme which has outraged all sides of the Australian government targets alleged war crimes in Afghanistan.

Timely, given that next Thursday (the 10th), is International Human Rights Day.

China, of course, is campaigning from a blood-stained corner, its long record of human rights abuses and accusations thereof, lurking in the shadows. I mention the Tiananmen Square massacre in 1989, the persecution of Uyghurs and other ethnic minorities and so-called ‘re-education’ camps as examples of China’s human rights transgressions. The scary website below depicts the world’s human rights record in a series of charts.

The United Nations lists the main tenets of human rights as:

  • the right to life and liberty;
  • freedom from slavery and torture;
  • freedom of opinion and expressionand the right to work and education;

Everyone is entitled to these rights, without discrimination.

The Cato Institute ranks countries for their adherence to human rights principles. It will surprise no-one this side of the Tasman that New Zealand is at No 1. However, Australia has a strong human rights records, ranked, in 2018, as fourth in the world behind New Zealand, Switzerland and Hong Kong (the latter has no doubt dropped a few rankings since then).

An important indicator of a country’s attitude to human rights is its intake of refugees. New Zealand lifted its annual refugee quota from 750 (unchanged since the 1950s) to 1,000 then in July this year to 1,500. Australia ranks well in the number of refugees accepted – over 12,700 in 2018 (although Canada, with a population of 10million more than Australia accepted more than double that number).

But the issue that won’t go away is Australia’s inhumane treatment of asylum seekers and refugees who have arrived by boat. Australia’s long-held position (set by John Howard in 2012 and upheld by Kevin Rudd), is that no-one who has arrived here by boat will ever be resettled in Australia. The Morrison government would like to set its policy in legislative stone. The Labor Opposition, in weakly supporting this egregious position, said it would only do so if refugees in detention were able to re-settle in New Zealand.

The global scale of the refugee problem understandably allows Australia to sink below the footlights. Our numbers are comparatively tiny, so they warrant little attention on the global stage.

While Australia has re-settled a comparatively high number of refugees, its human rights record is blighted by an offshore detention regime that the International Criminal Court described as “cruel, inhuman, or degrading treatment” and unlawful under international law. But as The Guardian reported, Independent MP Andrew Wilkie’s campaign to bring Australia to justice on this issue fell short.

The office of the ICC prosecutor said that while the imprisonment of refugees and asylum seekers formed the basis of a crime against humanity, the violations did not rise to the level to warrant further investigation.

The one glaring example which fits all of those criticisms and more is the incarceration of a family of five Sri Lankan refugees.

They are the ‘Bilo’ family, adopted by people in Biloela in 2014, where they lived until forcibly removed by immigration officers in 2018. They have been held in the detention facility at Christmas Island since August 2019. They are reportedly the only detainees on the island. Various articles on this subject have speculated that this is costing between $20m and $40m a year.

This timeline by MP Josh Burns charts this sad tale over the past 20 years.

Meanwhile, 1,534 people are being held in Australian-controlled detention centres. Of these, 615 refugees are in Alternative Places of Detention (APOD) or Immigration Transit Accommodation (ITA). Some have been there a long, long time.

The latest Office of Home Affairs report shows that 502 people had been held for between 92 and 365 days. Another 743 have been held longer than a year and 229 held for longer than two years.

From these damning statistics, refugee support groups derive social media hashtags like #7yearstoolong. The latter is a reference to the 99 people the department admit have been in (domestic) detention for ‘more than 1825 days’ (6.5% of the total).

Since January this year, the Office of Home Affairs has been publishing key statistics on the ‘transitory’ refugee population in Nauru and PNG. As of October 31, there were 146 people held on Nauru and 145 in Papua New Guinea (total 291). The department resettled 212 people in 2020.

These statistics show that an unacceptable number of people have had their lives put on hold, indefinitely.

NZ’s leader Jacinda Ardern has tried to show Australia the proper path for fair treatment of refugees. A year ago, Ms Ardern told Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison New Zealand was open to accepting refugees from Nauru and PNG. Along the way, the country offered safe haven to the distinguished writer and refugee martyr, Behrouz Boochani.

You will see a lot of campaigns surface and re-surface next week as refugee support groups roll out their collection of hashtags and petitions. Rural Australians for Refugees (RAR) has started a campaign to lobby the Australian Government to enshrine a charter of human rights.

As RAR notes, “The ACT, Victoria and Queensland all have Human Rights Charters which cover their States. But because the Universal Declaration of Human Rights is not Australian law, the Australian Government is not bound by it.

The RAR has produced a discussion paper for interested groups to lobby for what is only fair and right.

To personalise the issue, just imagine for a minute that there has been a bloody coup in Australia and the White Australia junta has decreed that 7.25 million people born somewhere else must go back to their country of origin. Already there is a vast convoy heading for the backroads of Queensland and NSW, fleeing persecution. As you’d expect, they do so with dogged Aussie determination, flying their Aussie flags, with an attitude best summed up in the words of Darryl Kerrigan in the iconic Aussie film, The Castle: “Tell them they’re dreamin”).

So, dear reader, your mission on next week’s International Human Rights Day (December 10), should you choose to accept it, is to spend a few hours digesting these numbers. If we accept the position that a forcibly removed refugee is the subject of human rights abuses, these statistics from the UNHCR from December 2019 underline the magnitude of the global problem. At that time there were 79.5 million forcibly displaced people, 45.7m of whom were displaced internally. The UNHCR counted 26 million as refugees under its mandate. Comparatively few find a safe haven. Only 100,400 were resettled in other countries in 2019, with 5.4m returned to their country of origin.

And yet we (the Australian Government and others), campaigned strongly to free one of our own citizens being held in detention in Iran.

Given the Season, I’m ending on a lighter note. A reader submitted this, in response to my whimsical piece on ‘shoe trees’.

Speaking of readers, thanks to those who have responded so warmly to my modest subscriber request. Keep those cards and letters coming. Also, if you feel so moved, buy a Christmas card from RAR and send it to your local MP. #hometobilo

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