australia migrants.jpg
Photograph: EPA/MICK TSIKAS AUSTRALIA AND NEW ZEALAND

The Australian High Court Wednesday rejected a legal challenge to the country's offshore immigration detention policy, potentially giving the government the go-ahead to send scores of asylum-seeker families back to a detention centre on Nauru.

The court in Canberra handed down the ruling in the case of a pregnant Bangladeshi asylum seeker who had come from Nauru to Australia to get treatment for pregnancy complications.

Her baby was born in Australia. Now she and her 1-year-old child and many others face being returned to the Pacific island on 72-hours' notice.

The court in a majority decision said that the woman's detention on Nauru was not unlawful, was authorized under Australian migration laws, and that the offshore processing deal with Nauru was valid under the constitution.

Australia intercepts all migrants travelling by sea, and either turns them back or processes their asylum claims offshore. Government officials have defended the policy, saying it has saved lives at sea.

Daniel Webb, a lawyer with the Human Rights Law Center, which brought the case to court, said it is "fundamentally wrong to condemn these people to a life in limbo on a tiny island."

"Legality is one thing. The morality is another," he told reporters outside the court after the verdict was announced.

"This mother just wants what all mothers want her child to have - a decent life somewhere safe."

The woman from Bangladesh was on a boat that was intercepted by Australian authorities in October 2013 and sent to Nauru where she stayed until August 2014.

Webb said the woman broke down to tears after hearing the news.

At least 267 asylum seekers, including 91 children, are in Australia for medical and other reasons, according to authorities. Among them are 33 are babies born in Australia to asylum seeker mothers.

There have been several riots at Australia's offshore detention centres on Nauru and Manus Island in the Pacific, and Christmas Island in the Indian Ocean. Protesters and human rights activists have complained of harsh conditions at the centres.

Australia's Immigration Department blamed riots on Christmas Island in September on detainees who were awaiting deportation.

Amnesty International said they were disappointed with the ruling.

The forced return of the asylum seekers "would violate Australia’s international obligations" as they would be "at real risk of serious human rights violations if returned to Nauru," the group said.

Amnesty also said they continually receive "extremely concerning reports of sexual harassment and sexual abuse of women and children asylum-seekers in Nauru."

"The evidence is clear and it's undeniable that Nauru is unsafe for women and children and sending them back would be torture," Sarah Hanson-Young, a senator from the Green party, said in a statement.

As of December 30, 2015, there were 1,459 asylum seekers in offshore detention facilities in Nauru and Papua New Guinea, according to the Australian immigration and border protection department.

Webb said the government could still intervene.

"The stroke of a pen is all it would take for our prime minister and immigration minister to do the decent thing," he said.

On Tuesday night, Immigration Minister Peter Dutton told broadcaster ABC that the government remained committed to its offshore processing policy, and that by reducing the incentive to try and reach Australia, it had saved many lives at sea.

He said allegations of assault and sexual assault in detention centres were taken extremely seriously.

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