Papua New Guinea’s Supreme Court has ruled that Australia’s practice of detaining asylum seekers on the country’s northern Manus Island is illegal and must stop.
The five judges on the supreme court’s bench ruled on Tuesday that detentions breached section 42 of Papua New Guinea’s constitution, which guarantees personal liberty.
The court said “all steps” should be taken to end the “illegal” detention.
In their 34-page finding the court ordered the Australian and Papua New Guinean governments to “take all steps necessary to cease and prevent” the continued detention of the asylum seekers and transferees on Manus.
Under Australia’s controversial immigration laws, anyone intercepted while trying to reach the country by boat is sent for processing to camps in Nauru and Manus Island.
They are never eligible to be resettled in Australia. Currently around 850 people are held on Manus Island in Papua New Guinea on behalf of Australia.
Australian Immigration Minister Peter Dutton said the court’s decision “does not alter Australia’s border protection policies – they remain unchanged.
“No one who attempts to travel to Australia illegally by boat will settle in Australia,” he said in a statement.
“Those in the Manus Island Regional Processing Centre found to be refugees are able to resettle in Papua New Guinea.
“Those found not to be refugees should return to their country of origin.”
Australia’s asylum seeker policy has attracted international criticism from human rights groups.
“People have been detained for over three years in contravention of the laws of Papua New Guinea in abusive conditions,” said Elaine Pearson, Australia Director at Human Rights Watch.
“It is time to stop the abuse of vulnerable people who only ask for safety and the opportunity to rebuild their lives.”
In February, Australia’s High Court ruled that the government’s offshore detention of refugees was legal, sparking an outcry from the UN and human rights groups.
The verdict paved the way for a group of 267 asylum seekers, including 39 children, to be deported to the Pacific island of Nauru.
The legal case was brought by a Bangladeshi woman whose lawyers said her imprisonment on Nauru had been “funded, authorised, procured and effectively controlled” by the Australian government, without the constitutional power to do so.
Reacting to the decision at the time, Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull said the court’s decision was “significant.
“The government will keep Australia’s borders secure and stop drownings at sea,” he had said.
The United Nations Children’s Fund, UNICEF, however, issued a statement saying that the ruling “has no bearing on Australia’s moral responsibility or its obligations to protect the rights of children in accordance with international human rights law”.
“It is unreasonable for the Australian government to shift responsibility for this group of children and families with complex needs to a developing state in the region,” the statement said.