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UN Report Criticizes Australia’s ‘Inhuman’ Asylum Policies

FILE - Fishing boat carrying Vietnamese asylum seekers nears shore of Australia's Christmas Island, April 14, 2013.

A United Nations report has found Australia's asylum-seeker policies violate international conventions against torture, with one official offering a scathing criticism about an Australian-run immigration center in Papua New Guinea, where an inmate was killed last year.

Australia’s asylum policies have been scrutinized by Juan Mendez, the U.N.'s special rapporteur on torture, whose report criticizes Canberra for detaining children, and for failing to stop the “escalating violence and tension” at the regional processing center at Manus Island in Papua New Guinea.

Mendez said the rights of the asylum seekers have been violated because they are exposed to “cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment.”

Daniel Webb from the independent Human Rights Law Center said the report shames Australia.

“Clearly what we are doing at the moment is harming the men, women and children who seek our protection. It's also harming our very hard-won international reputation as a decent and rights-respecting nation,” Webb said.

Maritime policies criticized

The U.N. report also criticized Australia’s maritime policies that allow for asylum seekers to be held in “arbitrary detention ... at sea, without access to lawyers.”

Immigration officials have rejected the notion that the government’s stance breaches international conventions, and they stress that people who enter Australia illegally are offered a range of services.

When asked about the U.N. report Monday, Prime Minister Tony Abbott rejected it, saying “Australians are sick of being lectured by the United Nations.”

Abbott said his government’s policies have discouraged people from making the dangerous journey by sea, resulting in fewer deaths. He said that is in fact a more humane policy than the previous government’s stance, which he said had encouraged people smugglers.

Australia’s policy of automatically detaining all asylum seekers, many of whom come from countries including Iran, Afghanistan, Pakistan and Sri Lanka, dates back to the 1990s. It has bipartisan support from officials who argue that many of the purported asylum seekers are in fact economic migrants.

Strict policies

Ministers have insisted the strict policies are supported by the majority of voters. The current conservative government was elected by a landslide margin in 2013 after promising tougher action to stem a steady flow of unauthorized arrivals traveling to Australia by boat.

Undocumented maritime arrivals are sent for processing at two Australian-sponsored camps in the South Pacific, one on Manus Island, the other on the isolated republic of Nauru.

Detainees who are deemed to be genuine refugees are not given the opportunity to be resettled in Australia under government policy, which is designed to deter boat people and stop them from risking their lives at sea.

Canberra offers resettlement visas to about 14,000 people each year under various international covenants.

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