GENEVA (AFP) - The UN's top human rights body took Australia to task on Monday over hardline policies on asylum seekers, whom it has pushed back by the boatload and incarcerated in offshore camps.
Many of the more than 100 country representatives who took part in the UN Human Rights Council review of Australia's rights record scolded the country over its tough immigration policies.
Asylum seekers trying to enter Australia by boat have since 2013 been turned back or sent to detention camps on Nauru or Papua New Guinea.
Australia's 21-member delegation defended the practice, claiming it actually allowed the country to take in more people, pointing to the 12,000 refugees fleeing war in Syria and Iraq who are to be resettled in the country by the end of the year.
The country, which is vying for a seat on the Human Rights Council from 2018 to 2020, also insisted the policies had been introduced to stop human traffickers from putting migrants' lives at risk.
"Australia's measures have saved lives at sea," said Mr John Reid of the country's international law and human rights division.
Citing the UN refugee agency, Swedish ambassador Veronika Bard criticised Australia as being "the only country in the world that uses offshore processing and mandatory detention of asylum seekers".
She also voiced concern about allegations that Australia was sending asylum seekers back to the countries they had fled, "violating the principle of non-refoulement and thus its international human rights obligations". Others also chimed in.
"The continued detention of children in these centres is of particular concern," Ireland representative James O'Shea told the council.
He said that a UN expert in September decided to postpone his official visit to Australia indefinitely, citing restrictions on his access to detention centres and concerns that people he met could face reprisal.
Criticism grew after a riot broke out at an immigration facility on Christmas Island in the Indian Ocean following the unexplained death of an escaped asylum seeker, people at the centre said on Monday.
Amnesty International last month issued a report detailing "criminal activity by (Australian) government officials, including pay-offs to boat crews and abusive treatment of women, men and children seeking asylum".
Australia has rejected the report.
Mr Andrew Goledzinowski, ambassador for people smuggling issues, on Monday insisted to the council that critics of the country's model had neither understood the circumstances nor the potential consequences should the policies be lifted.
He said that prior to 2013, the country had already tried to liberalise its laws. The result then was smugglers piling thousands onto boats to make the perilous journey - and more than 1,200 deaths.
The country "could no longer tolerate such a large level of carnage", he said.