Australia says to halt offshore immigration centre plans

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Australia will be forced to suspend plans for off-shore processing of asylum seekers after a court ruled a refugee swap deal with Malaysia illegal, Immigration Minister Chris Bowen said yesterday.

Prime Minister Julia Gillard’s government has been under intense pressure on refugee policy amid a surge in asylum-seekers’ boats arriving in Australian waters. As well as the Malaysia deal, the government last month signed an agreement to reopen an offshore processing centre on Papua New Guinea’s remote Manus Island.

Bowen said legal advice since last week’s ruling indicated that current Australian law would bar that deal as well.

It would also bar proposals by the conservative opposition to reopen a centre on the Pacific island nation of Nauru, he told the Australian Broadcasting Corporation (ABC).
“The solicitor-general and two other senior counsel can have no confidence that an arrangement with PNG or Nauru is possible under existing law as a result of this judgment,” he said.

The only country in the region likely to be deemed acceptable was New Zealand, Bowen said. The ruling also meant the ‘Pacific solution’ of the former conservative government was invalid, he said.

The government will consider its options, including an attempt to change the country’s migration law, Bowen said.

Opposition leader Tony Abbott said he believed Nauru remained a viable alternative and offered to work with the government to amend the migration law if necessary.
“We don’t want the government to use the High Court’s decision as an excuse to drop offshore processing,” Abbott told reporters in Sydney.

Gillard’s minority Labor government, which survives on a shaky and razor-thin majority and must fight an election by late 2013, struck the Malaysian deal to fight perceptions that she was soft on asylum seekers. A tough stance on boat people has helped swing election results in recent years.

But Australia’s High Court last week ruled invalid an agreed deal to send up to 800 newly arrived asylum seekers to Malaysia. In return, Australia would accept more refugees from Malaysia.

Lawyers for two asylum seekers asked the High Court to declare the people swap deal illegal, because Malaysia had no legal guarantee to protect the rights of asylum seekers. In a ruling last Wednesday, the court agreed and ruled that Canberra could not ensure protection for asylum seekers sent to Malaysia.

Australia is a signatory to the U.N. convention on refugees but Malaysia is not.

Critics say Malaysia’s refusal to ratify the U.N. convention has led to mistreatment including caning and denial of basic rights for the 93,600 refugees in the country, who largely come from Myanmar, Sri Lanka, Somalia, Iraq and Afghanistan.