Australia court says Papua New Guinea camp for asylum seekers is legal

SYDNEY (AFP) - Australia's highest court on Wednesday dismissed a challenge to the government's policy of sending asylum seekers to Papua New Guinea, ruling detention at an island immigration camp legal.

An Iranian who arrived at Australia's Indian Ocean territory of Christmas Island by boat in July 2013 brought the case after he was transferred to PNG's Manus Island.

His lawyers questioned whether two sections of Australia's Migration Act, under which a minister can name another nation as a "regional processing country" and send asylum seekers there, were valid under the constitution.

The full bench of the High Court unanimously upheld both sections as legal. "The plaintiff's challenges to their validity fail," the full bench said in its judgment.

The Iranian asylum seeker is one of hundreds held at Manus, a camp rocked by riots in February in which one person died, another man had his throat slashed and dozens were injured.

Under Canberra's offshore detention policy, asylum seekers arriving in Australia on unauthorised boats are sent to camps in Nauru or PNG for processing and permanent resettlement. The United Nations and refugee advocates have repeatedly criticised the system and called on authorities to treat asylum-seekers humanely.

Prime Minister Tony Abbott, whose conservative government is continuing the offshore detention policy put in place by the former Labor administration, welcomed the High Court's ruling. "This is a very important policy for our country," he told reporters.

Scores of asylum seekers have drowned in recent years after paying people smugglers to bring them to Australia, often on overcrowded fishing boats unsuitable for the perilous voyage.

Mr Abbott, whose government now allows the turnback of vessels carrying asylum seekers to Indonesia, said he was determined to "stop the boats" bringing would-be refugees to Australia.

"We haven't had a successful people smuggling venture to Australia in almost six months and obviously I'm pleased those policies have passed muster," he said.

Greens leader Christine Milne said the High Court decision would not end her party's opposition to offshore processing centres. "There may have been a constitutional decision but the moral challenge remains," she said. "This is something that is a black stain on Australia's character. We must have these places closed down."

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