SYDNEY • Australia's highest court yesterday began considering whether the policy of sending asylum seekers to the tiny South Pacific nation of Nauru for long-term detention is in breach of the Constitution, a major challenge to the controversial policy.
The hearings at the High Court, set to last two days, will test for the first time whether Australia has the legal right to participate in the offshore detention of asylum seekers - the backbone of its immigration policy for five years.
The case has been brought on behalf of a pregnant Bangladeshi asylum seeker, who was brought to Australia from Nauru because of health complications and is being forcibly returned with her infant.
"This woman has a 10-month-old baby and she wants to rebuild her life somewhere safe and somewhere where she can move on with certainty. It is abundantly clear that can't happen on Nauru," said Mr Daniel Webb of the Human Rights Law Centre.
Nauru unexpectedly said on Monday that all 600 asylum seekers held there would be allowed to move freely around the island and that all their asylum applications would be processed this week.
Australia's Solicitor-General Justin Gleeson yesterday amended the government's case to include the three-day-old policy change, said the Nine Network.
Asylum seekers are a contentious political issue in Australia, although it has never received anywhere near the number of refugees now flooding into Europe. Successive governments have vowed to stop asylum seekers reaching the mainland, turning boats back to Indonesia when it can and sending those it cannot for detention in camps on Manus island in impoverished Papua New Guinea and on Nauru.
Harsh conditions at the camps have been strongly criticised by the United Nations and rights groups.
Australian Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull last month said he was concerned about conditions in the camps but gave no indication of a major policy change. Immigration Minister Peter Dutton said Nauru's decisions were unconnected to the High Court challenge.
No one processed at the Nauru or Papua New Guinea camps is eligible to be settled in Australia.