SYDNEY (Reuters) - The U.N. refugee conventions have become a tool to facilitate people-smuggling "death voyages", Australia's immigration minister said on Monday, amid mounting criticism of the country's hardline asylum seeker policies.
Under laws aimed at stopping migrants reaching Australia by boat, asylum seekers are sent to camps in Papua New Guinea and the tiny South Pacific nation of Nauru where they face long periods of detention while they are processed.
Immigration Minister Scott Morrison defended those policies in an interview with Sydney's 2GB Radio, arguing that years of poor legal interpretation had distorted the conventions.
"Our courts draw on all of their interpretations, and what started out being a pretty sensible document over time has had layer upon layer upon layer and it is now being used as a tool by people smugglers to basically run death voyages," he said.
The comments came in response to growing concern over the treatment of 157 Sri Lankan asylum seekers, transferred on Saturday from the Australian mainland to a detention centre on Nauru in what lawyers say was a secret nighttime airlift.
A boat carrying the mostly Tamil migrants was intercepted by the Australian navy late in June and the passengers were detained at sea for a month before being brought ashore last week for questioning by Indian officials.
But Hugh de Kretser, a lawyer for the detainees, said he had been denied proper access to his clients and rejected claims he had advised them not to meet Indian officials, which Morrison says was the basis for their transfer.
"To characterise the level of access we've had as anything proper, in terms of our ability to advise our clients about their options and what was proposed in relation to them, is completely wrong," he told reporters.
Prime Minister Tony Abbott's conservative government says the policies are needed to save lives at sea and protect Australia's sovereignty.
But the policies have drawn criticism from human rights groups and the United Nations, which has raised concerns that Australia could be in violation of its treaty obligations.
A group of prominent Christian leaders last week accused Morrison of committing "state-sanctioned child abuse", while a former detention centre doctor said he was told to cover up evidence that children held in the camps were suffering from widespread mental illness caused by their confinement.
(Editing by Clarence Fernandez)