SYDNEY: Australia’s hard-line immigration policies overshadowed the launch of its bid to join the UN Human Rights Council, with the government and rights lawyers arguing bitterly over a pregnant Somali asylum-seeker who claims she was raped.
Immigration Minister Peter Dutton accused lawyers of fabricating stories about the treatment of the woman, who human rights advocates said was denied basic medical attention and likened her removal from Australia to CIA-style rendition.
Australia has decided to take 12,000 refugees from Syria on top of its current humanitarian intake quota. The United Nations has said at least 850,000 people are expected to cross the Mediterranean seeking refuge in Europe this year.
That estimate already appears conservative as millions of Syrians flee their homes devastated by war, including widespread air strikes by the US and allies such as Australia.
However, Australia’s controversial policy of turning back refugee boats and holding asylum seekers in prison camps in poor South Pacific island nations such as Nauru and Papua New Guinea has undermined any goodwill.
Pressure is mounting on Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull to act on the harsh detention conditions after reports of systemic child abuse and rape. The UN also sharply criticized Australia after an observer canceled an official visit to the detention camps, citing a lack of government cooperation.
“Our harsh and cruel treatment of asylum seekers and refugees is damaging our international reputation and damaging our ability to advance our national interest, whether it’s through being elected to the Human Rights Council ... or in other negotiations,” said Hugh de Kretser, executive director of the Human Rights Law Center.
De Kretser said UNHRC membership would enable Canberra to rebuild relations with the UN. In March, former prime minister Tony Abbott said Australia was “sick of being lectured to by the UN” after a report accused Australia of breaching international anti-torture conventions.
The UNHRC bid came as protesters took to Sydney streets, and as lawmakers and immigration officials scrapped with lawyers over the treatment of the 23-year-old Somali woman, known only as Abyan, who is being held on Nauru and who claims her pregnancy was the result of being raped there.
She was brought to Australia last week for an abortion, a procedure banned on Nauru, but was returned four days later when Dutton’s office said she no longer wanted to terminate the pregnancy.