Melbourne: Australia has damaged its human rights record by persistently undercutting refugee protections, including a "draconian" policy to send asylum-seekers to Pacific island camps, Human Rights Watch said Wednesday.
HRW`s annual World Report said successive Australian governments had prioritised domestic politics over international legal obligations towards asylum-seekers, who faced "draconian new policies in Australia" diverting them to third countries.
"2013 did really represent a new low in the treatment of refugees and asylum-seekers for Australia," HRW Australia director Elaine Pearson told reporters in Jakarta at a launch of the report.
Her comments follow the conservative Australian government`s implementation of Operation Sovereign Borders, under which it has begun intercepting asylum-seeker boats on the high seas and turning them back to Indonesia when it is safe to do so.
The previous centre-left Labor government, which lost power in September last year, began sending asylum-seekers arriving by boat to Papua New Guinea and Nauru for processing, tightening the rules in 2013 to say that none would be resettled in Australia even if judged to be genuine refugees.
"There`s something deeply unsettling and unconscionable about the wealthiest country in the region foisting its burden onto poorer, less equipped countries," Pearson said.
Pearson said that Australia risked "being compared to another country that has also had a lot of issues and an abysmal record with an offshore jail -- and of course I`m talking about the US and Guantanamo".
Prime Minister Tony Abbott defended the policies on Tuesday, playing down a row with Jakarta over the turn-backs sparked by an admission the Australian navy had repeatedly entered Indonesian waters during the operations.
Speaking from Switzerland, Abbott said the relationship with Indonesia was, broadly speaking, his country`s most important single one and President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono was "a very good friend of Australia".
"All of that said, for us, stopping the boats is a matter of sovereignty and President Yudhoyono of all people ought to understand, does understand, just how seriously countries take their sovereignty," Abbott told reporters in Davos.
"So we will continue to do what we are entitled to do to secure our borders."
HRW criticised Australia`s mandatory detention of those arriving in the country without a visa.
"The United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees has repeatedly expressed concern regarding the mandatory and indefinite detention of asylum-seekers in offshore centres, where conditions are harsh and unsatisfactory and individuals get little help making their claims," the report said.
The UNHCR last year released a harsh review of the facilities for asylum-seekers on Papua New Guinea`s Manus Island and in Nauru, saying they failed to meet international standards.
The agency said the camps, which house hundreds of asylum-seekers, amounted to arbitrary detention in breach of international law and failed to provide an efficient system for assessing refugee claims or safe and humane conditions.
Canberra rejected the criticisms as "quite overstated".
HRW said Australia had also been increasingly unwilling publicly to raise human rights abuses in countries with which it has strong trade or security ties, fearing that doing so would harm its relations with some Asian governments.