Australia's High Court Monday extended a temporary ban on the controversial transfer of asylum seekers to Malaysia. The first group of detainees facing expulsion under the new agreement has been given a reprieve, at least until a full court hearing later this month.
The 16 Afghan and Sri Lankan asylum seekers had been due to fly to Kuala Lumpur early Monday under a new deal in which Australia would send 800 asylum seekers to Malaysia in exchange for 4,000 processed refugees.
Australia insists the agreement will stop potential refugees from travelling by boat into its remote northern waters.
However, lawyers for the asylum seekers have asked the Australian High Court to rule the swap deal invalid. In a hearing Sunday in the nation's capital, Canberra, the lawyers obtained a temporary injunction preventing any deportations.
David Manne, an attorney who runs the Refugee and Immigration Legal Center in Melbourne, launched the High Court proceedings. He says the boatpeople are entitled to have their claims assessed in Australia.
“What the court has said is that the Australian government at the moment is prohibited from expelling our clients to Malaysia pending the outcome of this case and this case is about our clients arguing that their claims for refugee protection should be considered in Australia instead of being expelled to Malaysia.” said Manne.
The Australian government argued that Immigration Minister Chris Bowen has the power to make decisions regarding where asylum applications are processed.
Bowen said he was expecting the so-called "Malaysia Solution" to face legal challenges, but insisted the government was determined to implement the plan to stem the flow of boatpeople making the perilous sea crossing to Australia.
Rights groups have criticized the deal, accusing Australia of not meeting its legal obligations to refugees and risking the health and safety of vulnerable people, including children.
Immigration and border protection are sensitive political issues in Australia. The conservative opposition said the High Court’s decision to temporarily stop deportations to Malaysia was proof that the government’s asylum policies are in chaos.
A full High Court hearing is expected later this month.
Australia grants about 13,000 refugee visas each year under various international treaties.