Court blocks Australia refugee swap

Court halts government plan to send asylum seekers to Malaysia pending further hearing later this month.

    The plan has sparked protests among campaigners critical of Malaysia's human rights record  [Reuters]

    Australia's High Court has extended a temporary halt on the transfer of asylum seekers to Malaysia, preventing the government from sending a first group back to their country.

    The Canberra-based court on Monday extended an earlier injunction on the controversial move, backed by Julia Gillard, the Australian prime minister, until a further hearing scheduled for the week beginning August 22.

    At a special evening hearing in Melbourne on Sunday, Justice Kenneth Hayne said asylum seekers who had been due to leave on Monday should not depart before late afternoon, pending the hearing of another application, the Australian Broadcasting Corporation reported.

    That decision came after lawyer David Manne, from the Refugee and Immigration Legal Centre, sought an injunction stopping the removal of the group, arguing that Australia did not have the right to deport asylum seekers.

    "This is about life or death matters and our clients are challenging the government's power to expel them to Malaysia where they fear they will not be protected and they are at real risk of harm," Manne said.

    Australia plans to send up to 800 asylum seekers to Malaysia in return for accepting 4,000 registered refugees from the country over four years as part of a deal designed to stop asylum seekers arriving by boat from landing in Australia.

    Gillard's government has come under increasing criticism over the deal after it was revealed that unaccompanied children who arrived by boat would not be exempt from transfer.

    Al Jazeera's correspondent in Australia, Andrew Thomas, reported from Sydney that the idea of the swap was that it would discourage asylum seekers from boarding boats in the first place.

    "The last thing they want is for unaccompanied children to be put on boats, because the people smugglers know they are the ones not going to get sent back."

    Political flashpoint

    Manne said that Australian law required that their claims for refugee protection "should be considered here in Australia instead of expelling them to Malaysia".

    Ahead of the hearing, the government said it was prepared for protests and legal challenges and vowed the deal would go ahead despite concerns among rights campaigners that Malaysia has not signed up to the UN convention on refugees.

    "We are determined to implement this," immigration minister Chris Bowen told Channel Ten.

    "People who come to Australia by boat can work on the basis that they will be returned to Malaysia, regardless of any protest activity," Bowen added.

    Asylum seekers' arrivals are a long-running political flashpoint in Australia, splitting voters and helping swing the outcomes of past elections, despite the country receiving just under 0.5 percent of the world's refugee hopefuls, according to UN data.

    "John Howard, 10 years ago, won an election off the back of turning away a Norwegian tanker that had rescued asylum seekers from a boat, by looking tough against the asylum seekers," our correspondent said.

    "And the numbers did drop off for a while but in recent years they have been coming back again and Labor, the current government, has taken a lot of flak from the opposition about the numbers coming here."

    The government boosted police presence on Christmas Island, which houses a processing centre for asylum seekers, on Saturday, increasing the total number of officers there to just over 100.

    News agencies reported that a boat with 50 asylum seekers on board was intercepted north-east of Christmas Island on Sunday, the second boat to arrive since the Malaysia agreement came into effect.

    SOURCE: Al Jazeera and agencies


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