Almost 200 prominent doctors, lawyers, academics and refugee advocates have accused the federal government and both the Liberal and Labor parties of "wilfully and deliberately" pursuing harmful policies of detention for asylum seekers, manipulating public opinion and wasting public funds on offshore detention centres.
In an open letter to the Abbott government, the group known as J'Accuse have demanded that mandatory detention and the off-shore solution be dismantled, detention capped at 30 days and alternative solutions be adopted that are consistent with Australia's obligations under the Refugee Convention.
J'Accuse was named after the Dreyfus affair in 1898 when writer Emile Zola accused the French government of anti-Semitism and the unlawful jailing of a Jewish army officer for espionage.
The group includes Alastair Nicholson, former chief justice of the Family Court of Australia, a University of Melbourne law professor and the chairman of Children's Rights International; former NSW Director of Public Prosecutions Nicholas Cowdery, QC; Emeritus Professor of Medicine at UNSW John Dywer AO, who was also founder of the Australian Health Care Reform Alliance; Eva Cox AO; and former Commonwealth Ombudsman Allan Asher.
Spokeswoman Louise Newman said the group had long held the views that mandatory detention of the most vulnerable people, including children, was very dangerous.
Professor Newman, a psychiatrist and formerly a member of the government's Immigration Health Advisory Group, which was axed by the Abbott government in December, said the government was well aware of the damage that was being done and it was "deeply troubling".
"We want to hold the government to account," she said.
Professor Newman, who is also the director of the Centre for Developmental Psychiatry and Psychology at Monash University, said it was impossible to hold proper public debate about the issues because of the rhetoric and "sloganeering" that has been used to manipulate public opinion into accepting the cruel treatment of asylum seekers
The letter lists 13 points accusing the government and both political parties of implementing inhumane practices, pursuing a policy of detention in spite of evidence that is cause psychiatric disorders, including self-harm and suicide, contravening child protection policies, engaging in forced deportations to situations of danger, and persuading the public that cruelty to people who arrive by boat is justifiable.
It also accuses the government of exploiting community ignorance, encouraging racist media coverage and "cynically negotiating with poor weakly governed countries" in order to house asylum seekers in circumstances that leave them unsafe.
Professor Newman said the group want to tell the government their actions are unacceptable particularly that the government "accepts harm to children as collateral damage as if we are in a war".
Immigration Minister Scott Morrison has defended the government's position on its policy of detention of children in the past week, saying that under the Coalition, there are 450 fewer children - a decline of 35 per cent - being held at offshore and mainland detention centres.
Mr Morrison has also defended the decision to send 157 Tamil asylum seekers, including 50 children, to Nauru while the Human Rights Commission's inquiry into children in detention has heard claims that children have been harming themselves.