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Asia

Australia's asylum-seeker policy facing major legal challenge

As Europe struggles to cope with an unprecedented refugee influx, Australia's hardline policy is coming under increased scrutiny. A legal challenge could have broader implications on the country's future asylum policy.

For several years, Australia has been sending a strong message to asylum seekers trying to reach the country's shores by boat: They're not welcome.

The government's hard-line policy is to turn back the boats or to send asylum seekers to offshore detention centers on the impoverished remote island nation of Nauru and on Manus Island, Papua New Guinea.

But now, a major legal challenge brought to Australia's highest court on Wednesday, October 7, is set to review whether the government's policies are in breach of the Australian constitution.

A major legal challenge

Australien Gerichtsurteil über Asylanten Baby

Canberra wants to send a Bangladeshi asylum seeker and her 10-month-old baby back to Nauru

At the center of the court case is a Bangladeshi woman, who in 2014 was sent from the island of Nauru to Australia to seek medical treatment for health problems in the final stages of her pregnancy. Now, the government wants to send the woman and her 10-month-old baby back to Nauru.

Daniel Webb, director of legal advocacy at the Human Rights Law Centre (HRLC) - which took the woman's case - spoke to DW about the outcome he hoped for his client.

"Australia should not be indefinitely warehousing anyone on remote islands, especially babies. We're hoping that our client - a vulnerable mother with a ten-month-old baby - will not be sent back to a place we know is harmful and unsafe.

The court will determine whether the woman, who is protected by the constitution while in Australia, can be returned to Nauru.

"The case looks at the power of the Australian government to fund and actively participate in the detention of innocent people offshore, which is a fairly central component of the current arrangement," Webb added.

If the challenge is successful, it could have broader implications for future offshore processing. The ruling could affect some 200 similar cases, where asylum seekers have been sent to Australia for medical attention.

Nauru opens its gates

Australien Gerichtsurteil über Asylanten

Australia's top court is reviewing the legality of the offshore detention centers

Four thousand kilometers (2,485 miles) north of Sydney, the small Pacific island nation of Nauru, hosts some 600 asylum-seeking men, women and children in detention. Human rights groups have described conditions at the facility as harsh and cruel, and provided alarming reports of systematic abuse. Pamela Curr, the refugee and detention rights advocate at the Asylum Seeker Resource Centre (ASRC) told DW, the situation is particularly bad for women.

"The rate of rape and sexual abuse is now at epidemic proportions. Women are calling us all the time in distress, and we defintitely need international intervention."

Access to the detention center has been restricted. In September, the United Nations postponed a special envoy citing the government's lack of cooperation and "unacceptable" legal restrictions.

Last month, a senate committee said the immigration center at Nauru was inadequate and unsafe, stressing that children should be removed from the facility as soon as possible. It also called for allegations of rape, abuse and mistreatment to be independently investigated.

In an unexpected move on Monday, October 5 - just two days before the high court hearing - Nauru said it would be opening its gates to allow all 600 asylum seekers held there to roam free on the island. The announcement came three years after the detention center's reopening.

It also announced it would process all outstanding refugee claims within a week, but later clarified the pledge did not apply to those who were currently outside Nauru, or their families.

ASRC refguee advocate Curr told DW, the detainees on Nauru don't feel safe at the prospect of living in the Nauruan community where asylum seekers are frequently attacked and harassed.

"They are very resentful of the refugees," she said.

Policy of deterrence

Australia receives a small fraction of asylum seekers compared to the numbers Europe is currently facing. Yet its approach to handling them is vastly different, says HRLC's Daniel Webb.

"At a time of unprecedented global need, nations need to respect international law and share responsibility for refugee protection. Australia's approach is precisely the opposite - to breach international law in order to shift responsibility elsewhere," Webb said.

Flüchtlingsboot vor der australischen Küste

Those seeking asylum in Australia come from countries such as Sri Lanka, Iran, Afghanistan, Pakistan and Iraq

Those seeking asylum in Australia come from countries such as Sri Lanka, Iran, Afghanistan, Pakistan and Iraq, where they claim to face persecution if sent home. To reach Australia, some of them take the long and treacherous boat journey from Indonesia.

To deter them from coming and prevent deaths at sea, successive Australian administrations introduced strict measures such as turning back the boats or sending asylum seekers to offshore detention centers.

In 2014, Canberra struck a $29 million dollar deal over four years with Phnom Penh to resettle in Cambodia an unspecified number of refugees currently held at Australian-run detention camps. However, until now, only four of the 1600 asylum seekers held on Nauru and Manus Island agreed to resettle.

More recently, Australia's Immigration Minister Peter Dutton said the government was in talks with the Philippines about the possibility of resettling refugees there.

"We have been very open to discussions for a long period of time with those partners because we have been very clear about the fact that people on Nauru and on Manus, who have sought to come to our country illegally by boat, won't be settling in Australia," Dutton said.

However, rights expert Daniel Webb criticized that spending billions of dollars on putting innocent people in detention was not the solution.

"If every country did as Australia does, the unprecedented number of people fleeing danger would simply have nowhere to go. Sadly, Australia should be part of the solution but its punitive deterrence policies make it part of the problem."

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