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SYDNEY - Australia’s indefinite detention of 46 recognized refugees amounts to cruel, inhuman and degrading treatment, the United Nations said Thursday, applying more international pressure on the government’s tough policies toward asylum seekers.

The Geneva-based U.N. Human Rights Committee called on Australia to release the refugees, many of whom have been held as security threats for more than two years, and offer them compensation for what it said was the ‘serious psychological harm’ that had been inflicted upon them.

The announcement came less than a month after the Office of the U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees said it was ‘troubled’ by new Australian policies aimed at stemming the tide of people making dangerous boat journeys to seek asylum here.

The refugees mentioned by the committee Thursday appealed to the United Nations on the grounds that they were unable to challenge the legality of their detention in Australian courts. A majority of the detained refugees are ethnic Tamils from Sri Lanka, but they also include Rohingya from Myanmar and at least one Kuwaiti.

‘The combination of the arbitrary character of (their) detention, its protracted and/or indefinite duration, the refusal to provide information and procedural rights to (them) and the difficult conditions of detention are cumulatively inflicting serious psychological harm upon them,’ the committee said in a statement.

The majority of those seeking asylum in Australia are from Iran, Afghanistan and Sri Lanka who have set out in crowded, often unsafe vessels for Christmas Island, a remote outpost in the Indian Ocean that is the closest Australian territory to Indonesia. About 1,000 people are believed that have died in recent years as a result of accidents at sea.

Under a stringent new system announced last month by Prime Minister Kevin Rudd, those arriving in Australia by boat are to be sent to refugee-processing centers in nearby Papua New Guinea. Those who are found to be entitled to refugee status under the United Nations convention on refugees will be resettled there, but they will forfeit any right to seek asylum in Australia. Thousands of asylum seekers have been arriving in the country annually.

The issue is among the most contentious in Australian politics, and comes as Rudd is engaged in a difficult re-election campaign with a national vote scheduled for Sept. 7. Rudd and the opposition leader, Tony Abbott, have both sought to define themselves as the toughest candidate on asylum seekers. Abbott has threatened to deny permanent residency to about 32,000 asylum candidates already in Australia.