Australia closes potential offshore detention legal loophole

Asylum seekers who arrived by boat escorted by Australian navy patrol boats are moored in Flying Fish Cove, Christmas Island, Australia, August 16, 2012.
Asylum seekers who arrived by boat escorted by Australian navy patrol boats are moored in Flying Fish Cove, Christmas Island, Australia, August 16, 2012.PHOTO: EPA

SYDNEY (AFP) - The Australian government on Thursday scrambled to close a possible loophole in its offshore asylum-seeker detention regime, rushing legislation through parliament in a bid to avoid a High Court ruling that could render the process illegal.

The conservative Liberal-National coalition, with the support of the Labor opposition, voted in favour of amendments to the Migration Act explicitly spelling out that the government had the right to fund offshore processing.

The policy - where asylum-seekers who arrive in the country by boat are sent to the Pacific islands of Nauru and Papua New Guinea while their refugee applications are processed - is central to Canberra's tough immigration regime.

But a High Court challenge brought by the Human Rights Law Centre in Melbourne on behalf of a group of asylum-seekers and their families, which began on May 14, questioned the government's legal authority to support such regional facilities.

With parliament due for a six-week break from Friday, an 11th-hour amendment to the act was hastily tabled and passed through the lower house on Wednesday with the upper house Senate voting late Thursday in support of the bill.

The Human Rights Law Centre slammed the move on Wednesday and said "all governments should observe and respect limits on their power, not hastily remove them".

"Given what we know about the current dangers facing vulnerable people locked up offshore, now is not the time to be hastily giving the government broad powers to lock up innocent people in other countries or to write blank cheques with our money for that purpose," the centre's legal advocacy director Daniel Webb said in a statement.

Under the policy, which was implemented when the coalition came into power in September 2013, asylum-seeker boats heading to Australia are turned back in military-led operations.

Asylum-seekers that arrive are held on Nauru and PNG and are banned from settling in Australia even if they are found to be genuine refugees. Human rights groups have criticised the policy and conditions at the detention centres.

The government has hailed the policy as a success, with only one boat carrying asylum-seekers reaching the Australian mainland since December 2013. Before the policy was introduced, boats were arriving almost daily, with hundreds drowning en route.

Some 1,577 asylum seekers - 1,391 men, 105 women and 81 children - are held on Nauru and PNG, according to immigration figures ending May 31.