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November 30, 2021

High Court to hear boat standoff case

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Protesters carry placards at a 'Welcome Refugees' rally in Sydney (AFP)
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The federal government’s power to send asylum seekers to other countries before they’ve even reached Australian waters will be tested in the High Court.

A full bench of the court will hear a test case on Tuesday involving the month-long stand-off on the high seas involving the detention of 157 Sri Lankan asylum seekers on a Customs boat.

The case could determine the government’s power to remove asylum seekers from Australia’s contiguous zone, just outside territorial waters, and send them to other countries.

The Human Rights Law Centre is helping the asylum seekers’ legal team.

Spokesman Daniel Webb warned the federal government’s proposed changes to maritime powers and migration laws could give it immunity to further legal action of the same nature.

‘It’s certainly designed to head off similar legal challenges in the future,’ Mr Webb told ABC Radio on Tuesday.

‘The government is effectively trying to give itself a licence to breach international law at sea.’

The asylum seekers set off from India on June 13 and authorities intercepted their boat 16 days later, 16 nautical miles off Christmas Island.

Theirs is the only official asylum boat arrival to Australia this year.

The group spent almost a month detained on the Customs vessel Ocean Protector while the government tried to return them to India.

They are now in detention on Nauru.

Mr Webb lamented that contact with the clients had been difficult.

The lawyers faced a lot of back and forth with the Australian and Nauru governments over access.

‘I think it reflects badly on the government’s decision to whisk people away to a remote island when they were the subject of a proceeding before the highest court in this country,’ he said.

The government will argue the detention was legal and the plan to send them to India did not breach Australia’s non-refoulement obligations under international law.


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