SYDNEY • An Australian court ruling paving the way for the deportation of more than 250 asylum seekers to an offshore immigration camp has drawn criticism from the United Nations and sparked protests, while church leaders publicly offered them sanctuary.
On Wednesday, the High Court rejected a legal test case that challenged Australia's right to deport detained asylum seekers to the tiny South Pacific island of Nauru, about 3,000km north-east of Australia.
Some 267 people who were brought from Nauru to Australia for medical treatment, including up to 80 children, are now at risk of being returned to the detention centre, which houses around 500 people. The centre has been widely criticised for harsh conditions and reports of systemic child abuse.
Mr Rupert Colville, the spokesman for the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, said yesterday that Australia could contravene its obligations under the Convention on the Rights of the Child by sending back the group, which includes more than 12 women and at least one child who have alleged sexual assault or harassment while on Nauru.
The group also includes 37 children born in Australia.
Under Australia's laws, asylum seekers attempting to reach the country by boat are intercepted and sent to camps on Nauru, or on Manus island in Papua New Guinea. The government says this is necessary to stop asylum seekers dying at sea aboard the often-rickety boats used by people smugglers.
ROOM FOR APPEAL
If there are exceptional circumstances in the individual cases, then we're happy to look at that - and that's always been the case.
IMMIGRATION MINISTER PETER DUTTON
Immigration Minister Peter Dutton reiterated in a statement that asylum seekers arriving by boat will either be intercepted and turned back, or "sent to another country for processing".
But in an interview on ABC Radio yesterday, he appeared to open the door to at least some of those affected remaining in Australia.
"If there are exceptional circumstances in the individual cases, then we're happy to look at that - and that's always been the case," he said.
Hundreds of Australians yesterday protested outside the Sydney offices of the Department of Immigration, with more rallies planned in cities across the country.
"It's a completely dreadful and immoral thing that we are sending kids back there. It makes me ashamed of my government and ashamed of Australia," said Ms Sara Lubowitz, 52.
Several churches have offered sanctuary to the asylum seekers.
Anglican Dean Peter Catt of Brisbane declared the city's cathedral a sanctuary for those who have suffered trauma and risk abuse if they are returned to Nauru.