UN agency in High Court challenge to Abbott government's treatment of asylum seekers
George Newhouse: case will test the government's powers
The United Nations refugee agency will seek to appear in a
High Court challenge to the Abbott government's power to intercept boats
on the highs seas, hold asylum seekers indefinitely on customs vessels
and seek to return them to third countries.
The full court will hear the challenge in October and rule on
the legality of the government's recent treatment of 157 Tamil asylum
seekers who were held in windowless rooms on a customs vessel for almost
a month before their transfer to Australia and then Nauru.
The UNHCR is planning to apply to appear in the case not as a
litigant, but to assist the court on points of international law. It
will be the first time the agency has sought such leave since 2006.
A lawyer representing the asylum seekers, George Newhouse,
said on Thursday the case would test the power of the government "to
intercept a boat on the high seas, hold the passengers virtually as
prisoners for a month and then attempt to send them back to another
"This is a case that has never been tested before and the
power of the government to undertake such action is in question," Mr
Hewhouse said after a hearing before the full court was set for October
14 and 15.
"This has important implications not just for Australia, but
for all nations, and it's likely that we will see intervention from
human rights bodies both here and internationally," he said.
The Australian Human Rights Commission is also set to apply to appear before the court.
The Human Rights Law Centre’s director of legal advocacy,
Daniel Webb, said he remained deeply concerned about the wellbeing of
the 157 and the circumstances in which they were "forcibly and
secretively" transferred to Nauru.
“They were together eating a meal, then suddenly they were
rounded up, split into three groups and taken to separate locations," Mr
"Once there, they were told they were going to Nauru and
asked to sign forms. Many of them were crying and pleading to speak with
their lawyers. Their requests were refused and they were told they were
going to Nauru whether they liked it or not. The families were then
forcibly put on buses and taken to the airport.
“These people had just spent almost a month locked in
windowless rooms on a boat. Now they were being forced onto buses by
guards under the cover of darkness and refused access to their lawyers.
They were terrified.”
Mr Webb said the ordeal has taken its toll on all members of
the group, but expressed particular concern as to the impact on the
“There are 50 children in this group who have endured a truly
wretched few months. First they were detained at sea. Then they were
secretly and forcibly taken away to Nauru. Now they’re languishing in
detention on a remote Pacific island in conditions the UN has described
as inhumane and unsuitable for children."
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