REFUGEE Council of Australia president Phil Glendenning said measures to deter, expel and repel people who want to seek asylum in Australia were not sustainable.
"If the government used the billions of dollars it's spending now on helping the region we could be at the forefront of protecting people," he said.
"We could stop the boats by solving some of the problems that are causing people to flee. Simple deterrence is not an effective approach in the long term."
He said Refugee Week, which is this week and includes World Refugee Day on Friday, was about celebrating the wonderful things that refugees had done over the years.
"This week is all about letting their voices be heard.
"Australia's current approach isn't being cruel to be kind, it's just cruel and the government needs to hear that the majority of people don't support it.
"This cruelty is utterly unlawful and it flies in the face of Australia's policies for the past 50 years.
"Everyone in this country apart from the Aborigines is descended from migrants or refugees, so really we are being cruel to future Australians.
"This is also utterly unlawful under international law and we're out of step on this with other developed nations.
"We're appealing to all Australians to return to treating refugees fairly."
The council has chosen "restoring hope" as the Refugee Week theme for 2012 to 2014.
"While a refugee's journey begins with danger, it also begins with hope," the council's website said.