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10 Biggest Human Rights Challenges in Australia

Despite celebrating their status as a “young and free” country in their national anthem, Australia is no exception to the several human rights abuses that occurs within the nation. In this article, we’ll explore the plethora of human rights issues that challenge Australia today, ranging from its systemic discrimination towards its Indigenous people to the freedom of expression on Australian soil.

#1 Refugees Rights

Despite proposals on terminating asylum seeker offshore processing in Papua New Guinea and Nauru, the Australian government has made the decision to continue its policy indefinitely, sparking criticism from human rights activists worldwide. Since its inauguration in 2012, all asylum seekers who arrive by boat are required to undergo mandatory indefinite detention and processing offshore. Several refugees who have transferred from Papua New Guinea and Nauru have been detained in hotel rooms with limited sunlight, fresh air and room to exercise. At least 12 refugees have died in Australia’s offshore processing policy since 2013, with half of the deaths attributed to suicides. In 2021, a Kurdish asylum seeker sued the Australian government, arguing that the government’s use of hotel detentions were unlawful and breached the human rights of refugees and asylum seekers.

#2 Indigenous Rights

Indigenous Australians have consistently been overrepresented in the criminal justice system, comprising a third of the adult prison population, despite constituting only 3 percent of the Australian population. During 2021, over 11 Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Australians died in custody and a prison officer faced court charges for manslaughter for shooting an Indigenous prisoner.

#3 LGBTI Discrimination

Despite progressive work in promoting the equality of LGBTI people in Australia, young Australians continue to face discrimination for their identity as having same-sex attraction. A study found that 61% of LGBTI Australians reported suffering from verbal abuse and approximately 20% facing physical abuse. Over 80% of homophobic discrimination and bullying occurs at schools, leading to higher cases of school dropout, depression and mental health issues.

#4 Sexual Harassment

Sexual harassment and violence against women are one of Australia’s pressing human rights issues, with one in three Australian women experiencing violence in an intimate relationship, and one in five facing sexual violence. Domestic and sexual violence against women is also cited to be the greatest contributing factor of homelessness in Australia.

#5 Incarceration of Children

In Australia, Indigenous children are 21 times more likely to be detained than non-Indigenous children, highlighting the disproportionate effect of incarceration on ethnic minorities. Approximately 600 children under the age of 14 are imprisoned each year and despite calls to raise the age of criminal indictment from 10 to 14 years to match recommended international standards, the Australian government has consistently declined such requests. Furthermore, a 2020 report by the South Australian Guardian for Children and Young People revealed that imprisoned children were subject to invasive body searches and treatment in Adelaide’s Youth Detention Centre.

#6 Freedom of Expression

Several Australian universities have failed to protect the freedom of expression of students from China and academics and students who criticize the Chinese Communist Party (CCP). Such lack of protection has led Chinese students and academics vulnerable to harassment, intimidation and attacks by pro-CCP groups, with pro-democracy students self-censoring themselves to avoid threats and being “reported” by peers to Chinese authorities.

#7 Disability Rights

Human Rights Watch recently discovered that between 2010 and 2020, approximately 60 percent of prisoners who died in Western Australian prisons had a disability. Within this segment of prisoners, 58 percent died due to limited resources, a lack of support and mental health services, suicide and violence, highlighting the inadequacies of the criminal justice system in Australia.

#8 Rights of the Elderly

Throughout the COVID-19 pandemic, there were over 650 COVID-19 associated deaths in aged care homes in the state of Victoria, with many outbreaks cited to be preventable.  The pandemic has highlighted the inadequacies of the aged care industry in Australia and the gaps in regulations. In fact, several aged care facilities use dangerous drugs without written consent of patients to control the behavior of the elderly with dementia and the federal government has yet to ban the practice.

#9 COVID-19 Restrictions

During the COVID-19 pandemic, the Australian government restricted the rights of its own citizens from entering and leaving the country, with strict quarantine and quota measures leaving over 43,000 of Australian citizens stranded overseas. Following a spike of COVID-19 cases in India in May 2021, the Australian government implemented harsh fines up to AUD $66,000 or five years in prison for Australian residents and citizens who chose to fly between India and Australia. Despite similar spikes in COVID-19 cases in the United States and the United Kingdom, no bans and criminalization policies were implemented for these countries.

#10 Homelessness

On any given night in Australia, 1 in 200 people are homeless and find themselves unable to stay under a safe and affordable roof. Over a third of homeless people in Australia are under the age of 18 and domestic violence, poverty and sexual assault are the leading causes that drive up homelessness rates in Australia. Consequently, is the societal by-product of systemic inequalities and human rights issues that urgently need to be addressed.

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About the author

Kaori Higa

Kaori Higa is a freelance writer based in Vancouver, Canada. She has worked extensively in the human rights sector, public relations consulting and within state governments across three continents. As part of her work, Kaori has coordinated logistics for governmental press conferences and proposed strategies that encourage governmental and legal institutions to adopt human rights-based policies and legislation. Aside from her political endeavors and human rights advocacy, Kaori is an avid classical violinist, having been invited to perform a violin solo in Carnegie Hall.