Australia Tuesday rejected United Nations criticism that its treatment of asylum-seekers was “leading to a chain of human rights violations” with Canberra saying abuses in Syria and Iraq were worse.
New U.N. High Commissioner for Human Rights Zeid Ra’ad Zeid al-Hussein used his inaugural speech Monday to slam Australia’s offshore processing of asylum-seekers and turning back of boats.
He said it was leading to “a chain of human rights violations, including arbitrary detention and possible torture following return to home countries”.
“It could also lead to the resettlement of migrants in countries that are not adequately equipped,” the Jordanian prince added while addressing the Human Rights Council in Geneva.
Zeid also criticised Cyprus’ and the United States’ treatment of immigrant children and said the detention of asylum-seekers and migrants “should only be applied as a last resort, in exceptional circumstances, for the shortest possible duration and according to procedural safeguards”.
Under Canberra’s hardline immigration policy, boatpeople arriving in Australia since July 2013 — including children — have been sent to camps on Manus Island in Papua New Guinea and the remote Pacific state of Nauru.
They are resettled in those countries if their refugee claims are approved.
Australia has also worked to stem the flow of asylum-seekers through a military-led operation to turn boats back to countries such as Indonesia, where many begin the dangerous sea crossing.
Immigration Minister Scott Morrison rejected the U.N. allegations and said he “would be pleased to meet to discuss these matters as I do on a regular basis with the UNHCR”.
“The most flagrant abuse of human rights I am aware of is the beheading and crucifying of people in Syria and Iraq where Australia is seeking to relieve the humanitarian crisis,” he added.
Daniel Webb, from the Melbourne-based Human Rights Law Centre, welcomed Zeid’s comments saying in a statement that they “show the seriousness with which Australia’s flagrant breaches of international law are regarded on the world stage”.
“All that the government’s cruel and unlawful deterrence policies have achieved is to give vulnerable people who lack options one less option and to denigrate Australia’s international standing in the process,” he said.
Morrison has previously said his party’s asylum-seeker policies were effective in stopping people from dying at sea by deterring them from boarding boats bound for Australia.
Only one boatload of asylum-seekers has reached the Australian mainland since December. Previously, boats were arriving almost daily, with hundreds of people dying en route.