Australia’s highest court yesterday extended an injunction stopping the deportation of asylum seekers to Malaysia, leaving Australian Prime Minister Julia Gillard’s border security policy in limbo until late this month or next month when a final ruling is expected.
Gillard has signed a refugee-swap deal with Malaysia to challenge perceptions her government is soft on the issue of asylum seekers and raise her support with voters, who would throw her from office if an election was held now.
Lawyers representing a group of boat people who were scheduled to be deported yesterday, the first under Gillard’s deal, argued in the High Court of Australia that the government did not have the legal power to send them to Malaysia.
“There is a sufficiently serious question to be tried,” said High Court Judge Kenneth Hayne in referring the case to a full bench of the court, which will sit on Aug. 22.
The injunction would be extended until a final ruling was made, he said.
The Malaysia deal is the second attempt by Gillard to have an Asian nation take boat people, having announced earlier that East Timor had agreed to such a deal only to have it rejected by the East Timorese parliament.
A second failure by Gillard to achieve a regional agreement would further strengthen voter perceptions her Labor government, already struggling in opinion polls, is inept on policy and unable to deliver on major promises.
Asylum seekers are a long--running political flashpoint in Australia, splitting voters and helping swing the outcomes of past elections, despite the country receiving just under 0.5 percent of the world’s refugee hopefuls, according to UN data.
Under the Malaysia deal, Australia would send 800 asylum seekers, who arrive by boat, to Malaysia to have their refugee claims processed there. In return, Australia would accept 4,800 people from Malaysia who have been granted refugee status.
The government had wanted to send the first 16 men to Malaysia yesterday. They were from a refugee boat that arrived late last week with 54 people on board, including 19 children, with 14 of those children unaccompanied by an adult.
Lawyers for the boat people argued that it was illegal to send people to a country that was not a signatory to international laws protecting human rights.
“Today’s High Court decision vindicates Amnesty International’s stance that the Malaysia deal is inhumane, inappropriate and potentially illegal under Australian and international law,” Amnesty International’s refugee spokesman Graham Thom said.
Amnesty said it had documented numerous human rights violations faced by asylum seekers in Malaysia, including caning, arbitrary detention, labor exploitation and sexual abuse.