Pic: AP.

By Henry Belot

Human Rights Watch has condemned past and current Australian governments in its latest annual world report for engaging in “scare-mongering politics at the expense of the rights of asylum seekers and refugees.”

The report, released earlier this week, acknowledges that while Australia has a strong record of protecting civil and political rights, the persistent undercutting of refugee protections by successive governments has damaged the country’s potential to be a regional leader in human rights.

“Successive governments have prioritised domestic politics over Australia’s international legal obligations to protect the rights of asylum seekers and refugees, many of who have escaped from appalling situations in places like Afghanistan and Sri Lanka,” read the report.

Human Rights Watch made specific reference to the introduction of ‘enhanced screening’ for Sri Lankan asylum seekers in October 2012, a process that has seen 1,191 Sri Lankans returned at the time of the report’s publishing.

“This policy poses a serious risk of refoulment, returning genuine refugees to face persecution and threats to their life and liberty,” read the report.

The report also highlights concerns with offshore processing, a practice first introduced in 2001 only to be subsequently abandoned in 2008 and then reintroduced in August 2012.  In months prior to the September 2013 election, the Labor government added additional deterrence measures that have been adopted by Tony Abbott’s Coalition government.

“The new agreements mean that those found to be refugees, despite the limitations of the offshore processing system, will never to eligible for resettlement in Australia and instead will be permanently resettled in Papua New Guinea, Nauru, or another country,” read the report.

Professor Gillian Triggs, the President of Australian Human Rights Commission, told the ABC this morning that these criticisms should not come as a surprise to anyone.

“I think there’s no doubt at all that Australia’s position in relation to asylum seekers is unique internationally as a matter of practice,” said Triggs. “It is extremely harsh and egregious and that is raising concerns at the international level.”

The politics of asylum is notoriously divisive in Australia. Polling released by Essential Research and published by Crikey this week found that 46 percent of Australians believe genuine asylum seekers who arrive by boat should be allowed to stay in Australia.

In contrast, 26 percent believed that genuine asylum seekers should be “sent back to the country they came from,” while a further 15 percent stated that they should be resettled in another country.  Only 3 percent of respondents believed asylum seekers should be allowed to stay in Australia regardless of whether they are found to be genuine or not.