SYDNEY Australia's poor treatment of refugees in offshore detention camps is "draconian" and is causing lasting damage to refugees and to Australia's reputation as a rights-respecting country, Human Rights Watch said on Friday.
Conditions in the camps are abusive and detainees "regularly endure violence, threats and harassment", Human Rights Watch said in the Australian chapter of its annual global report.
Under Australian rules, anyone intercepted while trying to reach the country by boat is sent for processing to camps in the Pacific Island nation of Nauru and at Manus Island, in Papua New Guinea (PNG). They are never eligible to be resettled in Australia.
A spokeswoman for the Department of Immigration, asked about the report before its release, declined to comment but referred to earlier department assertions that conditions at the camps were adequate and were the responsibility of Nauru and PNG.
Those governments did not immediately respond to requests for comment.
Australia said in November it had agreed with the United States to resettle some of the refugees in the Nauru and PNG camps, in return for Australia taking refugees from Central America. But subsequent White House comments cast doubt on whether the new U.S. administration would proceed with the deal.
The arrangement offered "no solution" in any case, Human Rights Watch said, adding Australia should close the camps and better protect refugees.
Australia's tough policy has drawn strong criticism from the United Nations and other international rights organisations amid a global debate on how to manage huge numbers of asylum seekers displaced by conflict.
Successive Australian governments have supported the policy, which they say is needed to stop people drowning at sea during dangerous boat journeys.
More than 1,990 asylum seekers have drowned on voyages to Australia since January 2000, according to Monash University's Australian Border Deaths Database.
More than a third of the deaths occurred between 2007 and 2012, when Australia suspended its offshore detention programme, including an accident in 2010 when 50 people were killed when their boat was thrown onto rocks at Christmas Island.
That accident swung political and public opinion behind the offshore detention policy, which has enjoyed bipartisan and public support in Australia.
Human Rights Watch also criticised PNG for police brutality, after officers opened fire on student protesters in June.
PNG was also "one of the most dangerous places in the world to be a woman", and the government had failed to address corruption, Human Rights Watch added.
Australia and PNG agreed to close the Manus Island camp in August, but gave no date and it remains open. It held 871 people and the Nauru camp 383 people, according to the most recent statistics released by Australia in November.
(Reporting by Tom Westbrook; Editing by Robert Birsel)