Australia is resisting increasing international pressure to not deport infant asylum seekers after a minister warned on Thursday that allowing them to stay could cause more immigrants to arrive by sea.
Australia’s 3-year-old immigration policy aimed at preventing asylum seekers from reaching Australian shores by boat faced a challenge in the country's High Court on Wednesday after a Bangladeshi woman challenged Australia’s right to deport detained asylum seekers to the South Pacific island nation of Nauru.
According to the test case that the court rejected, 267 asylum seekers - most of whom came from Nauru to Australia for medical treatment or to support a family member who needed treatment - face potential deportation back to Nauru.
Australian Immigration Minister Peter Dutton said that asylum seekers including infants would be returned to Nauru once their medical treatment finished.
"We have to be compassionate on one hand, but we have to be realistic about the threat from people smugglers," Dutton told Australian Broadcasting Corp. radio. "We're acting in the best interests not only of these children, but children that would follow them," Dutton said.
The Australian government has all but halted the trafficking of asylum seekers from the Middle East and Asia by unsafe Indonesian fishing boats during the past two years by refusing to allow new arrivals to ever settle in the country.
The government asserted that the policy saved lives because asylum seekers were no longer drowning at sea during long and dangerous travels from Indonesian ports.
Hundreds of Australians on Thursday protested outside the Sydney offices of the Department of Immigration, with more rallies planned in cities around the country.
"We know, regardless of what the High Court has said, that ethically, morally, Nauru is wrong, offshore processing is wrong, it's decision which is not going to be made ultimately in the High Court, it's going to be made in the streets, in the workplaces, in the schools, in the universities in Australia. We are part of this community telling Malcolm Turnbull that we do not want people sent back to Nauru," said Ian Rintoul, President of the Refugee Action Coalition.
Human rights agencies called on the government to allow asylum seekers to stay in the country, with most focus on the 54 children and 37 Australian-born babies among them.
Some churches around Australia offered themselves as places of sanctuary for asylum seekers facing deportation, a symbolic gesture that carries no legal consequence for the authorities.
The United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights Rupert Colville said that amendments legislated by the government last year to preserve its deal with Nauru against the High Court challenge "significantly contravenes the letter and spirit of international human rights law."
Under the terms of the Convention on the Rights of the Child, the best interests of asylum seeker children should be a primary consideration in deciding whether to deport them, the UN Committee on the Rights of the Child reminded Australia.
The Australian Human Rights Commission, a government-funded independent agency, said that a medical team that examined the children held an immigration detention center in the Australian city of Darwin found that many had been severely traumatised by their experiences on Nauru.
According to a doctor’s report, a 5-year-old boy currently in Australia had allegedly been raped on Nauru. In response the Australian government said that it was investigating the allegations.