SYDNEY (AFP) – Australia faced two court challenges to its controversial asylum-seeker policies on Tuesday, with both seen as test cases.
The High Court in Canberra began hearing a case on the validity of a law used to detain 157 Sri Lankan Tamil asylum-seekers for weeks on the high seas in June, after they sailed from India.
In Brisbane, the Federal Court began considering a case that lawyers believe could set a precedent for asylum-seeker babies born in Australia.
Lawyers for the 157 Tamils, who are now held in a detention camp on the Pacific island of Nauru, claim their clients were falsely imprisoned on the ship.
Their case centres around whether Canberra has the power to remove asylum-seekers from its contiguous zone, just outside territorial waters, and send them to other countries.
The Human Rights Law Centre said the outcome could have implications for government policy.
“The case will consider whether the detention was lawful and the extent of the Australian government’s powers to intercept and detain at sea,” said the centre’s executive director Hugh de Kretser.
“This case concerns fundamental issues of liberty, safety and due process.”
The group, including 50 children, left the Indian port of Pondicherry in June – but their boat was intercepted by Australian authorities.
Canberra wanted to send them back to India and they were held in limbo on a customs ship while their case was debated.
They were eventually brought to Australia for a brief period so Indian consular officials could assess them. But all refused to cooperate and were transferred to Nauru.
The government insists their detention at sea was legal and that the plan to send them to India did not breach Australia’s non-refoulement obligations under international law.