By Jill Fraser
More than 260 asylum seekers – including 91 children – face imminent deportation to Nauru after Australia’s High Court ruled Wednesday in favor of the legality of the government’s offshore immigration detention policy.
A 6-1 majority saw the court reject a legal challenge filed on behalf of an unidentified Bangladeshi woman who was brought to Australia from the tiny South Pacific island nation in Aug. 2014 for medical treatment during the late stages of her pregnancy.
The test case, run by the Human Rights Law Centre on behalf of the woman, was linked to a series of challenges on behalf of 267 people brought to Australia for urgent medical treatment after suffering harm in offshore detention centers.
The group includes women who have been sexually assaulted on Nauru and 37 babies born in Australia.
In a statement, the Centre’s director of legal advocacy, Daniel Webb, distinguished between the “legality” of the government funding and participating in such as practice and its “morality”.
“Ripping kids out of primary schools and sending them to be indefinitely warehoused on a tiny remote island is wrong,” he said.
“We now look to the Prime Minister to step in and do the right thing and let them stay so these families can start to rebuild their lives.”
The Centre maintained that the High Court ruling “did not give a blanket authority for the Government’s actions”.
Conditions on Nauru have been described as appalling by rights advocates, and last year reports of rapes and sexual assaults on the remote island nation appeared across Australian media.
The Australian Human Rights Commission responded to Wednesday’s decision by stressing that it does not alter Australia’s international obligations toward people seeking asylum, expressing deep concern about the children and families due to be transferred.
“The High Court has confirmed that third country processing is lawful under our domestic legislation, but it did not judge whether it complies with international law,” said its president, Professor Gillian Triggs.
“Australia has obligations under international human rights law to protect the safety and wellbeing of all people under our jurisdiction, including people seeking asylum.”
Last year, the Commission had visited the Wickham Point detention facility in Darwin, accompanied by two senior pediatricians who interviewed and assessed the children there using internationally recognized tools appropriate for their ages.
The assessments uncovered “concerning” evidence about the mental and physical health of the children, most of who had spent months on Nauru.
Save the Children, which has served a child protection role on Nauru, has also urged Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull to show some compassion toward the 37 babies as well as the older children.
"If found to be genuine refugees, we urge him to do the decent thing and offer these vulnerable people permanent protection here in Australia," spokesperson Lee Gordon said in a statement.
Australian Greens Senator Sarah Hanson Young said the prime minister would be authorizing child abuse if the families were sent back to Nauru.
"The evidence is clear and its undeniable that Nauru is unsafe for women and children and sending them back would be torture," she underlined.
During question time in parliament Wednesday, Turnbull justified the government's position on asylum seekers by pushing its commitment to preventing drowning at sea and people smuggling, saying "the line has to be drawn somewhere and it is drawn at our border".
Richard Marles, Labor's spokesperson for immigration, said that while he welcomes a High Court decision validating Australia's offshore processing policy, the country should not detain people indefinitely.
In a prepared statement, Marles said the government “must immediately secure proper third country settlement options for refugees”.
Referring to a controversial deal to resettle those found to be genuine refugees in Cambodia, Marles said the governments of Turnbull and his predecessor, Tony Abbott, had “failed abysmally in securing any meaningful resettlement plan with a viable third country.”
He accused them of instead “wasting $55 million [Australian] on a botched deal with Cambodia that has resettled only 3 people.”