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Australian Court Ruling May Complicate Offshore Detention Policy

In this image provided by the Department of Home Affairs, two launches, right, from HMAS Launceston, not seen, intercept a boat, believed to be carrying 72 suspected asylum seekers, near Bathurst Island, in the Arafura Sea north of the Northern Territory

Australia's highest court has ruled that laws meant to deter asylum seekers are unfair. The judgment may force Australia's Labor government to reshape the policy of detaining asylum seekers on an island and denying them access to appeal courts if their claims for refugee status are rejected.

Refugee advocates say the High Court's decision could fundamentally change Australia's system for handling illegal arrivals who request asylum. Currently, most asylum seekers who try to enter illegally are held in a processing center on Christmas Island, a small Australian territory in the Indian Ocean.

The court ruled those detained in offshore facilities should have the same rights to appeal their cases as those who apply for asylum from the Australian mainland.

The Refugee and Immigration Legal Center in Melbourne initiated the action. Its head, David Manne, is celebrating the ruling.

"This is a great decision for the rule of law in this country," Manne said. "The High Court has unanimously ruled that these decisions for our clients were unfair and unlawful because the government was not applying ordinary Australian laws to decisions on these life or death matters. So we call on the government to publicly confirm that it will respect the Court's decision and give all these people a new decision making process that complies with the ruling of the Court.'

Under rules introduced in 2001, asylum seekers who arrive by boat and held offshore have not been allowed the same legal privileges as those who come by plane and apply for refugee status.

The policy was designed to deter boat people from making the perilous voyage from Indonesia and Malaysia to Australia's remote northern shores.

Two Sri Lankan Tamils challenged the rules. They arrived by boat last October but their asylum applications were rejected.

The court said they were denied "procedural fairness" because Immigration Minister Chris Bowen refused to hear their appeals. Bowen said the Tamils, who were detained on Christmas Island, did not qualify for ministerial intervention under current laws.

The judges ruled that asylum seekers on Christmas Island should not be treated any differently than others.

The government says it will carefully scrutinize the ruling to see if the laws needed to be changed.

Canberra's minority Labor government will wary of upsetting the Greens MP on which it relies on to stay in power. The Greens have strongly criticized the asylum policies.

So far this year, Australian authorities have intercepted more than 100 boats carrying asylum seekers. The flow of unauthorized arrivals has led to overcrowding on Christmas Island, prompting the government to build more facilities on the mainland. Most of the boat people are from Sri Lanka and Afghanistan.

Australia's grants visas to about 13,000 displaced people a year under various refugee resettlement programs.