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Special Procedures

“Australia’s human rights record blemished by punitive approach to migrants” – UN rights expert

Migrants in Australia

18 November 2016

CANBERRA / GENEVA (18 November 2016) – United Nations Special Rapporteur François Crépeau today warned that Australia’s human rights record has been tarnished in recent years by migration policies which have increasingly eroded the rights of migrants, in contravention of its international human rights and humanitarian obligations.

“The punitive approach adopted by Australia towards migrants who arrived by boat has served to erode their human rights”, Mr. Crépeau said at the end of his first official visit* to Australia. “It is a fundamental principle of human rights law that one person cannot be punished only for the reason of deterring another.”

The UN expert hailed several migration policies adopted by the authorities, such as the resettlement program granting humanitarian protection to a high number of refugees and assisting them in their integration process, as well as the welcoming of 12,000 refugees from Syria. However, he cautioned that several other migration policies and laws “are regressive and fall way behind international standards.”

“While Australia has the power to admit, deny entry or return migrants, it equally has an obligation to respect the human rights of all migrants in the process,” he said. Australia must respect certain limitations, such as the principles of non-refoulement, of non-discrimination and of the best interest of the child,” he noted.

Further, he observed that mandatory and prolonged on and off-shore immigration detention periods, obstacles in accessing justice and basic services such as health care, and discrimination in all areas of life as a result of one’s immigration status or that of their family member “cause immense suffering.”

“I am deeply concerned about the grave impact of the punitive approach – which creates so much uncertainty about the future – on the mental health of many migrants, some of whom are in prolonged and indefinite mandatory immigration detention onshore or in offshore regional processing centres, or living in community detention, or living under temporary protection visas,” Mr. Crépeau said.

“Yet the cure lies ultimately with Australia which has the responsibility to settle those from the regional processing centres who are found to be refugees,” the expert stressed. “Any agreement regarding third country resettlement must be meaningful – in terms of numbers, timeliness and opportunities to rebuild – and adhere to Australia’s international humanitarian and human rights obligations.”

“At the same time, Australia tries to offer regular, safe and affordable pathways for migration”, he noted. “I welcome the various different types of visa options available for migrants to come and work in Australia, such as the backpacker visa, Safe Haven Enterprise Visas (SHEV), working holiday visas and seasonal worker visas.”

However, he cautioned that the temporary nature of these visas may increase the vulnerability of migrants, as they will often refrain from reporting, protesting and mobilising, due to their fear of seeing their visa cancelled, being held in immigration detention or deported.

“I came across information about the exploitation of backpackers on working holiday visas, as well as of asylum seekers on bridging visas and students by employers in Australia,” Mr. Crépeau said. “Competent oversight mechanisms, including labour inspections, need to be better deployed and funded to combat such exploitation.”

The rights expert noted with concern that xenophobia and hate speech have increased in Australia despite the country’s rich history of migration, creating a significant trend in the negative perceptions of migrants. “Politicians who have engaged in this negative discourse seem to have given permission to people on the street to act in xenophobic ways and to allow for the rise of nationalist populist groups,” he warned.

“Australia must work to fight xenophobia, discrimination and violence against migrants, in acts and speech. Maintaining section 18C of the Racial Discrimination Act sets the tone of an inclusive Australia, committed to implementing its multicultural policies and programmes and respecting, protecting and promoting the human rights of all,” he concluded.

During his 18-day visit to Australia, the independent expert met with a range of government officials responsible for border management, civil society, trade unions, the Australian National Human Rights Commission, international organisations, and migrants themselves.

Mr. Crépeau also gathered first-hand information during his visits to Canberra, Melbourne, Perth, Brisbane and Sydney, and in on-shore detention centres and the regional processing centres in the neighbouring island Republic of Nauru.
The Special Rapporteur will present his country mission report to the UN Human Rights Council in June 2017.

(*) Check the full end-of-mission statement:

Mr. François Crépeau (Canada) was appointed Special Rapporteur on the human rights of migrants in June 2011 by the UN Human Rights Council, for an initial period of three years. As Special Rapporteur, he is independent from any government or organization and serves in his individual capacity. Mr. Crépeau is also Full Professor at the Faculty of Law of McGill University, in Montréal, where he holds the Hans and Tamar Oppenheimer Chair in Public International Law and is scientific director of the Centre for Human Rights and Legal Pluralism. Learn more, log on to:

The Special Rapporteurs are part of what is known as the Special Procedures of the Human Rights Council. Special Procedures, the largest body of independent experts in the UN Human Rights system, is the general name of the Council’s independent fact-finding and monitoring mechanisms. Special Procedures mandate-holders are independent human rights experts appointed by the Human Rights Council to address either specific country situations or thematic issues in all parts of the world. They are not UN staff and are independent from any government or organization. They serve in their individual capacity and do not receive a salary for their work.

Read the International Convention for the Protection of the Rights of All Migrant Workers and Members of their Families:

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