MELBOURNE (Reuters) - An Australian judge has ordered a temporary halt to plans to send asylum seekers to Malaysia, in a what could be a blow to Prime Minister Julia Gillard who had hoped the transfer of boatpeople would help lift her flagging popularity.
Australian Broadcasting Corporation (ABC) said the High court judge imposed the temporary injunction to stop the removal of asylum seekers from Christmas Island to Australia’s north until at least Monday afternoon, pending a hearing.
The transfer had been due to start on Monday under a deal with Malaysia that was meant to counter criticism that Gillard’s unpopular government, which has a precarious one-seat majority in parliament, was too soft on protecting the country’s borders.
Under the one-off swap agreement, Australia agreed to take 4,800 refugees whose claims have been processed in return for Malaysia accepting 800 who have not been processed and who had arrived in Australia’s north by boat.
Justice Kenneth Hayne ordered that the asylum seekers who were due to leave on Monday should not depart before late afternoon, pending the hearing of another application, the ABC reported.
Refugee lawyer David Manne had called for the halt, saying the government did not have the power to expel asylum seekers and that sending them to Malaysia was unlawful.
“This case is really about some very vulnerable people, asking the court whether the Australian Government has the legal power to expel them to Malaysia, where they fear that they will not be protected and they’ll be at real risk of harm,” the ABC quoted Manne as saying.
Gillard’s government has come under increasing criticism over the deal after it was revealed that unaccompanied children who arrived by boat would not be exempt from transfer.
The Australian government plans to film 54 boatpeople intercepted off Australia’s north last week, arriving at the Christmas Island detention centre, boarding a plane to Malaysia and arriving in camps in Kuala Lumpur for processing and post it on YouTube as a deterrent.
The government boosted the police presence on Christmas Island on Saturday, boosting the total number of officers on the island to just over 100. The police are expected to escort the asylum seekers to board the plane to Malaysia.
Meanwhile, news agencies reported that a boat with 50 asylum seekers on board was intercepted north-east of Christmas Island on Sunday — the second boat to arrive since the Malaysia agreement came into effect.
According to U.N. data, Australia receives just under 0.5 percent of the world’s asylum seekers.
Reporting by Morag MacKinnon, Editing by Jonathan Thatcher