A top United Nations human rights official spoke out May 25 against Australia’s refugee policies and treatment of their indigenous people, labeling the country’s practices racist and discriminatory.
According to Reuters, U.N. Human Rights Commissioner Navi Pillay criticized Australia’s plans to redirect to Malaysia 800 undocumented refugees who arrived illegally in boats in Australia seeking asylum. In exchange, Australia would admit some 4,000 other refugees of various nationalities who have been processed by Malaysia, have been determined to be genuine refugees, and are currently housed in that country.
Most of the 800 asylum-seekers Australia hopes to trade away are from Afghanistan, Sri Lanka, Iran and Iraq, and reached the continent by boat. Pillay claimed that the trade is motivated by racism, as many of those people are not White, western or European. Critics have decried the deal, saying that the 800 people Australia will send to Malaysia may face human rights violations, as that country has not signed international agreements protecting the rights of refugees, and has much lower standards for the treatment of refugees than Australia.
“I come from South Africa and lived under this, and am every way attuned to seeing racial discrimination,” Pillay, a former anti-apartheid campaigner and international criminal court judge told Reuters. “There is a racial discriminatory element here which I see as rather inhumane treatment of people, judged by their differences racial, color or religions.” She suggested that Australia should process the refugee applications instead of transporting the immigrants to Malaysia, which has not ratified the U.N. Refugee Convention or Convention Against Torture.
The Associated Press reported that Pillay also blasted Australia’s treatment of illegal immigrants, who are often held in detention centers for months while they wait for their visa applications to be assessed.
Pilay’s comments came after a six-day trip to Australia, where she discussed the nation’s imminent plans for the trade with Prime Minister Julia Gillard. The plan was designed to ease residents’ concerns about unregistered asylum seekers coming into the country.
While Gillard guaranteed that Malaysia would provide written assurances that the rights of those sent from Australia would be protected, Pilay wasn’t convinced.
“In my view and as international jurisprudence has shown, assurances are not sufficient protection,” Pilay told the AP.
The U.N. official also spoke out against the nation’s “intervention” policy. The policy, enacted by former conservative government leaders and continued by Gillard, limits the amount of welfare funds the country’s Aboriginal people are allowed to spend. The measure is intended to curb the amount of funds available to be spent on alcohol, gambling, and drugs.
“In my discussions with the Aboriginal people, I could sense the deep hurt and pain that they have suffered because of government policies that are imposed on them,” Pillay said, according to Reuters.
The Aborigines, who make up nearly 2 percent of Australia’s population, face many more hardships than other Australians and are ravaged by unemployment, substance abuse and domestic violence. As a result, their life expectancy is 17 years less than the nation’s other residents.