SYDNEY (Reuters) - Rights group Amnesty International has urged Australia to review its asylum seeker policies and end offshore detention after finding "debilitating and humiliating conditions" at processing centers that breach obligations under international law.
A steady flow of refugee boats is a hot political issue in Australia, polarizing voters. Prime Minister Tony Abbott's conservative Liberal-led coalition won power in September partly on the back of a tough campaign against asylum seekers.
In its report, Amnesty said 1,100 male asylum seekers now detained on Manus Island in Papua New Guinea were living in squalid 'prison-like' conditions, where one compound was reported to violate the U.N. Convention Against Torture.
Compounds on the island are known to be overcrowded with small fans shared among more than 100 men in an environment of stifling heat and overwhelming stench, Amnesty said.
"This system of harsh conditions and humiliating treatment is a deliberate effort to pressure people to return to the desperate situations they have fled from," Claire Mallinson, director of Amnesty in Australia, said in a statement.
"The policy of offshore processing is here to stay," Australian Immigration Minister Scott Morrison, who heads the combined asylum seeker task force known as Operation Sovereign Borders, told Reuters in an email response on Wednesday.
"To walk away from offshore processing would be reckless and irresponsible."
He added, "Where practical, suggestions raised to improve the operations of our offshore processing centers will be given proper consideration."
The U.N. refugee agency, the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, last year identified a global total of 10.5 million refugees, compared to just over 30,000 settled in Australia, putting the country's share at 0.29 percent, and ranking it at 49 among the countries that host refugees.
Pakistan hosted the largest number, with 1.6 million, and Iran, with 868,000 people.
Amnesty said asylum seekers at Manus were forced to line up for several hours a day for meals and had no access to adequate medical facilities for mental illness and health conditions.
The majority of those held on Manus have fled from war-torn areas, including Afghanistan, Darfur, Pakistan, Somalia, Syria, as well as Rohingyas from Myanmar and Bidun from the Gulf region, who have fled from ethnic persecution.
The report follows an inspection by the UN High Commissioner for Refugees that found conditions on Manus and at another centre on the Republic of Nauru in the South Pacific fell short of international standards.
They "do not provide a fair and efficient system for assessing refugee claims [nor] provide safe and humane conditions of treatment in detention," that report concluded.
(Reporting by Thuy Ong; Editing by Clarence Fernandez)