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Court affirms offshore detention

Thursday 4 February 2016 | Published in Regional

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CANBERRA – Australia’s highest court has thrown out a challenge to the lawfulness of the country’s offshore detention of asylum seekers.

The judgment opens the way for Canberra to send 267 people – including 37 babies who were born in Australia, and 54 other children – back to Nauru.

The case was taken to the High Court by the Melbourne-based Human Rights Law Centre on behalf of asylum seekers who had been transferred to Australia for medical treatment or to give birth.

It argued that offshore detention infringed constitutional limits on power, and that there was no law that gave the Australian government the power to facilitate offshore arrangements.

But in the court’s decision, announced by a full bench today, it was found that the federal government’s conduct was authorised by both the law and the Australian constitution.

An Asylum Seeker Resource Centre spokesperson, Pamela Curr, says sending people back to Nauru, where they face an uncertain future, is immoral.

“Since when is a wealthy, democratic country like Australia asserting for itself the right to send children, women, men, to a place where they face violence, all sorts of persecution – and that’s what they face on Nauru. The Nauru government don’t want them, there’s no future for them there.”

A senate inquiry into the Nauru camp last year heard of a culture of physical and sexual abuse at the centre, and claims that women and children are being forced to wet their bed, as they are too afraid to go to the bathrooms at night for fear of their safety.

The inquiry was told up to six families share communal tents filled with mice and cockroaches, no air conditioning, and mould which causes skin infections.

The inquiry was told about a seven year old girl who attempted suicide by hanging with electrical wire, and a teenager who sewed his lips shut in protest.

Curr says many of the asylum seekers were sent to Australia to receive urgent medical attention because Nauru lacks the capacity to provide proper care.

“We’ve got a film footage of the Nauru hospital as it operates right now – with wild dogs running through it, rusty, run-down, no proper sterilising facilities, no proper investigation facilities. I mean, it’s just a joke.”

Under the Migration Act 1958, the Australian government is able to use its discretionary powers to allow children and families who are party to the case to remain in Australia.

A Save the Children spokesperson, Lee Gordon, who has worked on Nauru, is urging the Australian prime minister Malcolm Turnbull to show compassion and allow the asylum seekers to stay.

“Turnbull indicated last year that he was very concerned about asylum seekers languishing in Australian run detention centres, and we are really urging Turnbull to exercise some compassion and make good on his concerns, and allow these people to reside in Australia in safety.”

The Refugee Action Coalition spokesperson Ian Rintoul says the High Court decision cannot be appealed – so it’s up to the public to put pressure on its representatives.

“The major appeal now has to be not through the legal challenges but to the wider court of public opinion in Australia. Regardless of this High Court decision, detention on Nauru is ethically and morally wrong. People are horrified.”

Reintroduced in 2013, the offshore detention regime is supported by both of Australia’s main political parties, but has been widely condemned by human rights groups and the United Nations.

It is not known when the government intends to send the 267 asylum seekers back to Nauru.

The Australian Minister for Immigration and Border Protection Peter Dutton could not be reached for comment. - RNZI