The United Nations' top human rights watchdog on Wednesday attacked Australia's tough refugee policies and the treatment of outback Aborigines, 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, U.N. Human Rights Commissioner Navi Pillay said.
"I come from South Africa and lived under this, and am every way attuned to seeing racial discrimination," Pillay, a former anti-apartheid campaigner and international criminal court judge, told reporters 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 religions," she said.
Pillay held talks on Wednesday 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 for refugee processing, hoping to appease voter concern about asylum seekers arriving by boat.
The government has been struggling to handle the flow of illegal immigrants and earlier this month said it had 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 U.N. refugee convention.
More than 900 people, mostly from Afghanistan, Iraq, Iran and Sri Lanka, have arrived in Australia so far this year, while 134 boats carrying 6,535 people turned up last year, prompting the government to harden immigration policy.
While Pillay's criticism may cause Australia some discomfort internationally, it is unlikely to convince Gillard or her conservative political opponents to change tack, given polls showing wide voter concern about border security.
She also criticised an "intervention" policy introduced by the former conservative government and continued by Gillard which places controls on welfare spending for Aborigines to help fight alcohol and child sex abuse in remote outback areas.
"In my discussions with Aboriginal people, I could sense the deep hurt and pain that they have suffered because of government policies that are imposed on them," she said.
Australia's 460,000 Aborigines make up about 2 percent of the population. They suffer higher rates of unemployment, substance abuse and domestic violence than other Australians, as well as having a 17-year gap in life expectancy.