Violations of the rights of Indigenous Peoples, refugees and asylum-seekers continued to cause concern. The enforcement of government COVID-19 measures lacked accountability and transparency.
The year began with the worst bushfires in Australia’s living memory. Thirty-four people died and thousands remained displaced. A state of emergency was introduced in March. In response to the COVID-19 pandemic, the government placed vast swathes of the country into lockdown.
As the #BlackLivesMatter movement protests took place around the world, Australia confronted the fact that since the Royal Commission into Aboriginal Deaths in Custody handed down its recommendations in 1991, more than 400 Indigenous people had died in police custody with no charges ever having been brought against detaining officers.
The over-representation of Indigenous people in prisons received heightened attention in both the media and in government policy. A report from the Australian Bureau of Statistics in September showed Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people made up 29% of the prison population but only 5% of the total population.
The movement to raise the age of criminal responsibility from 10 to 14 gained substantial public support, despite national lawmakers declining to bring Australia into line with international standards. Almost three in five children in detention were Indigenous. In August, the Australian Capital Territory (ACT) announced that it would be the first jurisdiction in Australia to increase the age to 14.
The harsh offshore detention regime for refugees and asylum-seekers continued for a seventh year. At least 241 people were held offshore, despite repeated offers from the New Zealand government to resettle up to 150 people per year.
Those who had been evacuated from immigration detention in Papua New Guinea, including Manus Island, for medical care in Australia remained in so-called alternative places of detention (APODs) with no indication of when they would be released.
The re-opening of the Christmas Island immigration detention centre in August raised alarm among refugees and asylum-seekers as they feared that they would still remain in indefinite detention.
Australia suspended its humanitarian resettlement programme due to the pandemic in March, but the government began a review of the Community Sponsorship Program for refugees in July.
Overzealous policing of COVID-19 restrictions, a lack of transparency on police enforcement guidelines, the disproportionate application of new regulations on marginalized communities and the extension of the state of emergency caused significant concern.
During the lockdown, police issued and then retracted fines for activities such as mountain biking, putting old holiday photos on social media and for a teenager taking driving lessons. People in Aboriginal communities with overcrowded and inadequate housing reported being harassed by police for having too many people in one dwelling.
In July, in the city of Melbourne, state of Victoria, 3,000 ethnically diverse people in seven public housing buildings, many of whom had experienced war or persecution, were put into “hard lockdown” without notice, unable to leave their homes for any reason and without any indication of when the lockdown would lift. The Victorian Ombudsman found the lockdown breached Victorian human rights law.
The COVID-19 restrictions coincided with major Indigenous rights protests across the country. During this time, some politicians claimed that COVID-19 cases were linked to the protests, which was strenuously refuted by health authorities.
Attacks on the rights of the LGBTI community were made throughout the year through various attempts to change anti-discrimination laws at a federal and state level, which would prioritize the right to freedom of religion over other rights. Some advances were made by the state of South Australia and the ACT to end “conversion” practices for LGBTI people.