Australia maintained hardline policies with regard to refugees, particularly those held in offshore processing centres. The government continued to detain refugees and asylum seekers who arrived by boat at Manus island in Papua New Guinea (PNG) and on Nauru, marking the seventh year since the reintroduction of its offshore processing and settlement policy. Australia continues to turn back boats of people seeking safety and to refoule (return) people to the country from which they are fleeing.
Indigenous people, including children as young as 10, continued to face high rates of incarceration. Four Indigenous people died in prison or at the hands of police, with the most recent case, in November, resulting in a murder charge against a policeman.
The Queensland Parliament became the third Australian jurisdiction to pass a human rights act, after Victoria and the Australian Capital Territory. Yet Australia remains the only western country without a specific human rights act or bill of rights.
Asylum seekers and refugees
Since 13 August 2012, 4,177 people have been sent to Nauru or PNG as part of Australia’s policy of offshore processing of refugees. As of 30 September, 612 refugees and asylum seekers remained in PNG and Nauru, 47 of them detained in very poor conditions in the Australian-funded Bomana Immigration Centre outside Port Moresby, PNG’s capital. Humanitarian organizations warned that many of them suffered from diminishing mental health and needed access to mental health care due to, or exacerbated by, years of detention, lack of family contact, and the indefinite nature of their time in custody. Self-harm and suicide attempts remained frequent.
Twelve refugees and asylum seekers have died on Manus Island and Nauru since 2013, including Reza Berati, who was murdered. Dr Sayed Mirwais Rohani committed suicide in October. He had been detained on Manus Island since 2013, and was transferred to Australia to access mental health care in 2018.
More than 150 other refugees and asylum seekers were transferred to Australia for medical care only after their lawyers threatened urgent court proceedings. These cases included children as young as 10 who suffered from acute mental health conditions, some of whom attempted suicide. Since the Medevac Bill, designed to provide refugees held offshore with appropriate health care in Australia, was passed on 21 October, 135 people were transferred under its provisions. Another 39 were approved for transfer and were awaiting transfer as of that time. However, 10 of them were detained by PNG. In total, 1,117 people had been transferred to Australia for medical or other reasons as of 30 September. But in a grievous setback, the Australian government repealed the Medevac bill on December 4, forcing refugees held offshore who needed to access health care to again seek leave from the High Court to gain medical assistance unavailable in PNG or Nauru.
In February, a coronial inquest commenced into the death of asylum seeker Omid Massoumali, who died from self-inflicted burns following his delayed transfer to Australia for treatment.
Progress under an agreement to resettle some refugees in the United States was slow, with only 632 sent there since the arrangement was agreed to in 2016.
The UN High Commissioner for Human Rights urged Australia to meet its international obligations, particularly in relation to refugees and people seeking safety.
Indigenous rights/criminal justice
Indigenous Australians remained significantly over-represented in the criminal justice system, often for minor offenses such as unpaid fines. Despite comprising just 2% of the country’s population, Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people comprised 28% of the adult prison population. Indigenous women made up 34% of the women’s prison population and Indigenous children made up over 50% of the children’s prison population.
Australia detained children as young as age ten. On an average night, nearly three in five (59%) children aged 10 to 17 in detention were Indigenous, despite Indigenous children making up only 5% of the population aged 10 to 17. Indigenous children aged 10 to 17 were 26 times as likely as non-Indigenous children to be in detention on an average night.
Very few of the recommendations from the 2017 Royal Commission into the Protection and Detention of Children in the Northern Territory were implemented. The commission recommended that the Don Dale detention centre be closed, but it remained open. It had been the centre of an abuse scandal, where the commission found children in spit hoods constituting cruel, inhuman and degrading punishment, held in isolation, and suffering other abuses. During May every child in detention in the Northern Territory was Indigenous.
Four Indigenous people died in prisons or at the hands of police over the course of the year. On 13 March, Alf Deon Eades was attacked by other prisoners and died from his injuries. On 12 June JB committed suicide in Western Australia’s Acacia prison, just days after his mother had told the authorities that he was suicidal. On 17 September Joyce Clarke was killed by police outside her home in the Western Australian town of Geraldton. On 8 November Kamanjayi Walker was killed by police in Yuendemu, in the Northern Territory. A policemen was charged with his murder.
Freedom of expression
Media freedom came under attack when the Australian Federal Police raided a journalist’s home and a media headquarters, following reporting on Australian defence force abuses in Afghanistan and government plans to expand surveillance powers.
Following growing climate change protests across Australia, the prime minister threatened to invoke powers to stifle campaigning and protests. Anti-protest laws were enacted in Queensland, criminalising peaceful protest tactics and infringing Queenslanders’ rights to freedom of expression, association, and peaceful assembly. Offenses were punishable by up to two years in jail.
Other human rights issues
The government established a Royal Commission into Aged Care to examine the treatment of older people, following widespread accusations of abuse. The counsel assisting the commission found the authorities to be “missing in action” in the face of reports of neglect, and said there was a systematic absence of accountability and lack of transparency by governing, regulatory and provider organisations. In late October, the commission issued an interim report that found substandard and unsafe care. One of the priority issues it targeted was the need to restrict the use of chemical restraints.
A Royal Commission was also established into Violence, Abuse, Neglect and Exploitation of People with Disabilities and was due to report in the middle of 2020.