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Ensuring human rights safeguards for everyone in Australia

Rights Rights and Freedoms
Woman in mask pushing against a fence

Australia now has strict rules about when we can and can’t go out, what we can do and who we can meet with. There’s strong community support for these restrictions, and many of us are making sacrifices for the greater good.

At a time of crisis, our commitment to human rights is an important protection against creeping authoritarianism, which we are starting to see in some other countries. New technology can enable surveillance at an unprecedented scale, using everything from CCTV to our mobile phone data. The Commission’s work on human rights and technology has highlighted the dangers of using artificial intelligence in policing, and the consequences of automating important decision-making processes without appropriate safeguards, as we saw recently here in Australia with ‘Robodebt’.

While public health emergencies call for extraordinary measures, restrictions must be reasonable, proportionate, consistent with international law, and in place for the shortest time possible. They also need genuine independent oversight. This week, my opinion piece in the Guardian highlighted the importance of adequate protections.

We need to combat COVID-19 strongly and effectively, but also consistently with our values of fairness, equality and justice. This means we must speak up for those whose voices are hardest to hear.

Through our regular inspections of Australia’s immigration detention facilities, we speak with many people seeking asylum from authoritarian conditions in their own countries. The often-crowded conditions in these facilities make physical distancing almost impossible and health experts have recognised the high risk of the virus spreading in such conditions.

Last month, the Australasian Society for Infectious Diseases recommended that immigration detainees, who do not pose a significant security or health risk, should be released into housing in the community. I support this urgent call to action.

The health and human rights of people in detention must be protected to safeguard the whole community. We’re all in this together so it is vital that we leave no one behind—and that includes the 2.4 million people living in Australia on temporary visas, many of whom don’t have access to the social security safety net, but also cannot readily return to their home countries.

I have written to the Minister for Families and Social Services to request she use her new discretionary powers under the Coronavirus Economic Response Package Omnibus Act 2020 to extend the safety net to protect the basic rights of all people in Australia.

Edward Santow
Human Rights Commissioner