Asylum Seeker Advocates Dismayed by High Court Ruling
29 January 2015 at 9:52 am
Refugee advocates have slammed a High Court ruling that the Australian Government acted lawfully when it detained 157 asylum seekers at sea for a month last year.
The Tamil refugees had fled Sri Lanka via India before being intercepted by the Australian customs vessel Ocean Protector in June.
It was reported at the time that they were held at sea, without being told where they were going, for a month while Australia tried to return them to India.
After refusing to meet with Indian government officials they were transferred to Nauru and have remained there since.
On Wednesday the High Court ruled, in a four to three split decision, that the Australian Government’s actions had not breached domestic law.
The Human Rights Law Centre (HRLC) had brought the case against the Government to the High Court with the help of Shine Lawyers and Ron Merkel QC.
Executive Director of the HRLC, Hugh de Kretser, said that while the outcome was disappointing, the case had succeeded in bringing vital legal scrutiny and transparency to the Government’s actions at sea.
“It took this case for the Government to finally break its secrecy and confirm that it was detaining 157 people – including 50 children as young as one – on a boat somewhere on the high seas. If it hadn’t been for this case, the Australian public may never have known what happened to those 157 people,” de Kretser said.
But de Kretser said the High Court’s decision highlighted the widening gap between Australia’s international human rights obligations and its domestic laws and practices.
“Incommunicado detention on the high seas is a clear breach of Australia’s international human rights obligations. Unfortunately, today’s decision confirms that our domestic law allows the Government to breach those obligations,” he said.
“We need to find a better way. Instead of using cruel and secretive measures to stop refugees arriving on boats, the Government should focus on addressing why they get on them in the first place. We need to focus on providing safe and viable pathways to protection within our region.”
Shine Lawyers Special Counsel George Newhouse said that while his clients would be disappointed with the outcome, it was vital that they’d had their day in court.
“These 157 people were detained on a customs ship for almost a month. Both their treatment and the secrecy surrounding it was appalling,” Newhouse said.
“While they were hoping for a different final outcome, the case succeeded in bringing much needed transparency. It also helped to ensure that our clients’ refugee claims were assessed, rather than simply sending them back to India no questions asked.”
Former Immigration Minister and current Social Services Minister, Scott Morrison, showed his approval of the High Court decision on twitter.
“I welcome the High Court decision regarding the legality of the Government's actions under Operation Sovereign Borders,” Morrison wrote.
Meanwhile his Immigration portfolio replacement, Peter Dutton, proclaimed that it had been six months since the last illegal boat arrival in Australia and that during 2014 there had been only one “successful people smuggling venture”.