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  • Offshore processing of refugees has been condemned as inhumane by human rights groups and is now being challenged in Australia's High Court.

    Offshore processing of refugees has been condemned as inhumane by human rights groups and is now being challenged in Australia's High Court. | Photo: Reuters

Published 24 June 2015

Australia's two largest political parties have teamed up to protect a hardline asylum seeker policy mired in allegations of human rights abuses.

Australia's government rushed Wednesday to patch up a legal loophole that could mean its controversial treatment of asylum seekers has been illegal for years.

The loophole stems from the implications of a 2014 High Court ruling that effectively mandated Parliament with passing specific spending bills for large expenditures. Currently, the government is pouring millions of dollars into funding its asylum seeker offshore processing centers on the island nation of Nauru and Papua New Guinea's isolated Manus Island. Although offshore processing itself is legal under the Migration Act, the High Court ruling may mean the controversial program is illegal without separate funding legislation.

"It is a truly extraordinary thing for the Government to be spending billions of dollars indefinitely detaining people in other countries."

Both the ruling Coalition and opposition Labor party have agreed to work together to ram legislation through Parliament to enable funding of the offshore centers, potentially by the end of the week.

According to a motion moved by Labor leader Bill Shorten, "The basis that the legislation solely goes to enabling payments, enabling the fact of regional offshore processing and that the legislation does not change or in any way expand the current situation/policies/extent of regional offshore processing."

The only major party to oppose the move is the Greens, though together Labor and the Coalition easily have enough seats to pass the proposed reforms.

Greens Senator Sarah Hanson-Young has slammed the agreement between Shorten and Prime Minister Tony Abbott as “shameful.”

"For the last three years this Government and the previous government illegally detailed children and families on Nauru and Manus Island … Labor has got to grow a spine — stand up when it matters." she said, according to Australian public broadcaster ABC.

 

She continued by accusing the government of rushing to "change the law so they don't have to face the music in the High Court.” The comment was a reference to a procedural hearing before the High Court Wednesday, related to a case brought against the government by 10 asylum seekers.

During the hearing, representatives for the asylum seekers cited the 2014 High Court ruling to argue the government hasn't passed prerequisite spending bills to authorize funding of offshore processing.

"It is a truly extraordinary thing for the Government to be spending billions of dollars indefinitely detaining people in other countries," said Daniel Webb, from the Human Rights Law Center.

The center is one of the most vocal domestic critics of offshore processing – a practice that has been widely condemned internationally.

In late 2014, two United Nations agencies issued statements almost simultaneously slamming offshore processing as inhumane and potentially in violation of international law.

First, the U.N. Committee on Torture announced it had uncovered brutal conditions in the processing camps on Manus and Nauru, including poor access to basic necessities such as healthcare for detainees.

“The combination of these harsh conditions, the protracted periods of closed detention and the uncertainty about the future reportedly creates serious physical and mental pain and suffering,” the report concluded.

The same day the report was released, Australia's handling of asylum seekers also drew fire from the United Nations High Commission for Refugees (UNHCR) representative in Indonesia, Thomas Vargas.

According to Vargas, Australia's detention of asylum seeking children violates one of the most widely ratified U.N. human rights treaties, the Convention on the Rights of the Child. “The impact, the negative impact that it has on a child's life at the very beginning of their life, to put them in this type of horrible situation, you can just imagine the negative consequences that it has on their psyche, on their wellbeing," he said.

“Not only is it not humanitarian, but it's illegal under international law,” Vargas added.

Abbott has long responded to criticism of his hardline asylum seeker policy by arguing his government received an electoral mandate in 2013 to “stop the boats,” referring to undocumented maritime arrivals of asylum seekers.

The world's population of displaced people is currently at its highest point since World War II, though Australia shelters only a small fraction of the world's refugees. According to the latest figures from the UNHCR, Australia is ranked 22nd in the world in terms of per capita intake of refugees. In 2012, the country took in just 1 percent of the global refugee population.

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