Australia's treatment of asylum seekers, the detention of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Peoples and the nation’s continued support of fossil fuel industries have been condemned by leading global watchdog Human Rights Watch in its annual world report. 

The report said despite a “strong record of protecting civil and political rights,” serious human rights issues remain.

Last year, the timeframe in review, marked eight years since Australia reintroduced offshore processing. 

The system, which the government uses to process asylum seekers who arrive in Australia by boat, has been labelled as a “cruel treatment” that “tarnishes the country’s global standing” and limits “access to sunlight, space to exercise and fresh air.” 

"Approximately 230 refugees and asylum seekers remained in Papua New Guinea and Nauru at time of writing,” the report states. “Some of the refugees and asylum seekers transferred from Papua New Guinea and Nauru to Australia have been detained in hotel rooms. At least 12 refugees and asylum seekers have died in Australia’s offshore processing system since 2013, six of them suicides.”

The lack of rights afforded to First Nations Australians has also been widely criticised.

Despite accounting for just 3% of the general population, Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Australians account for 30% of all adult prisoners, while Indigenous children are 17 times more likely than non-Indigenous Australian children to be imprisoned.

At least 11 Indigenous Australians died in custody in 2021.

The fact that Australia has yet to increase its national age of criminal responsibility — a policy that disproportionately affects Indigenous youth and works to enable children as young as 10 to be arrested, kept in custody and imprisoned — has likewise been denounced.

While concerns around disability rights, the rights of older people and freedom of expression were highlighted, the impact of Australia’s climate change policy was featured heavily, with the report including the issue as part of the nation’s assessment for the first time.

"The global climate crisis is a human rights crisis, and Australia, as one of the world's biggest per-capita emitters of greenhouse gases, is failing to meet its global responsibilities," Sophie McNeill, a researcher at Human Rights Watch, wrote for the group. “The Australian Government should rapidly reduce emissions and stop subsidizing fossil fuels to prevent the most catastrophic climate outcomes.”

In October 2021, Australia pledged to reach net-zero greenhouse gas emissions by 2050.

While the announcement was applauded, many claimed the nation needed to do much more, including announcing an ambitious goal to reduce emissions by 2030, halting the approval of new coal mines and removing significant tax breaks that continue to benefit fossil fuel companies.

The fact that Australia banned citizens from travelling in and out of the country in the early days of COVID-19 was also critiqued.


Demand Equity

Human Rights Watch Condemns Australia Over Climate, Asylum Seekers, Indigenous Rights

By Madeleine Keck