The head of Amnesty International says Australia's reputation as a compassionate nation has been destroyed because of its treatment of asylum seekers.
Irene Khan came to Australia to deliver a blunt message to John Howard's conservative government about its policy on asylum seekers. She said its so-called "Pacific Solution," under which boat people from Indonesia are intercepted by the Australian Navy and shipped to camps in Papua New Guinea and Nauru, is simply perpetuating the business of people smuggling.
Amnesty's secretary-general also criticized the mandatory detention of asylum seekers, saying it did not act as a deterrent to others.
Anyone arriving in Australia without the proper documentation and claiming to be a refugee is placed in an immigration center while the authorities decide whether they can stay. The government said it is a fair system that helps its officials weed out bogus visa applications.
Periods of detention last on average for a few months but can go on for up to five years. Earlier this year detainees at the remote camp at Woomera in the South Australian desert went on a hunger strike in a dispute over conditions and the processing of visas.
Speaking at the National Press Club in Canberra, Ms. Khan said the government's refugee policy had done serious damage to the country's reputation. "The image of Australia today is less of a carefree sun burnt sporting nation and more the image of Tampa and its human cargo, of riots and protest at Woomera, of Australian funded detention centers on the Pacific islands," Ms. Khan said.
The Tampa incident was a turning point in the way Australia deals with asylum seekers. Last August, 430 mainly Afghan refugees were rescued by the Norwegian freighter from their sinking boat in the Indian Ocean as it sailed for Australia's northwest coast.
In an effort to stop the illegal immigrants from reaching its shores, the Tampa was refused permission to dock in Australia and its human cargo transported to camps in other Pacific nations. This new policy was popular with voters at last November's federal election, which returned Prime Minister John Howard to a third term in office.
Around 130 of the asylum seekers rescued last year by the Tampa were taken to New Zealand. All but one have had their claims for refugee status accepted and will be able to stay in the country.
Amnesty, the London-based human-rights organization, claims Australia's asylum policy has bred feelings of xenophobia and racism in the general community.
Prime Minister Howard has said he is too busy to meet Amnesty Secretary-General Khan during her five-day visit. She is to meet Immigration Minister Philip Ruddock on Thursday.