UN claims Canberra has racist policies

The United Nations top human rights envoy attacked Australia's tough refugee policies and the treatment of outback Aborigines yesterday, saying there was a strong undercurrent of racism in the country.

Long-standing policies of locking up asylum-seekers had "cast a shadow over Australia's human rights record", and appeared to be completely arbitrary, said Navi Pillay, the UN Human Rights Commissioner.

"I come from South Africa and lived under this, and am every way attuned to seeing racial discrimination," Ms Pillay, a former anti-apartheid campaigner and International Criminal Court judge, said at the end of a six-day visit. "There is a racial discriminatory element here which I see as rather inhumane treatment of people, judged by their differences, racial, colour or religion."

Ms Pillay held talks yesterday with Prime Minister Julia Gillard and expressed deep concern about the minority Labor government's latest plan to send hundreds of asylum-seekers to Malaysia. The government has been struggling to handle the flow of illegal immigrants and struck a deal with Kuala Lumpur to ensure asylum-seekers caught heading to Australia would be sent to Malaysia, which is not a signatory of the UN refugee convention.

She also criticised a policy which places controls on welfare spending for Aborigines to help fight alcohol and child sex abuse in remote outback areas.

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