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

Australia should not send back asylum seekers to an offshore detention centre on the island of Nauru, despite a High Court ruling that gave the government the go-ahead, the UN human rights office warned Wednesday in Geneva.

The Australian High Court on Wednesday rejected a legal challenge to the country's offshore detention policy, in the case of a pregnant Bangladeshi asylum seeker who had come from Nauru to Australia to get treatment for pregnancy complications.

At least 267 asylum seekers, including 91 children, are in Australia for medical and other reasons, according to authorities.

Transferring them to Nauru "would put Australia at risk of breaching its obligation not to return any person to cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment under the Convention against Torture," said Rupert Colville, spokesman of the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights.

Such a step could further damage their physical and mental health, he said in Geneva, pointing out that the group includes more than a dozen women and at least one child who were allegedly sexually abused or harassed on Nauru.

"We therefore urge the Australian government to refrain from transferring all concerned individuals to Nauru," he said.

In addition, the UN children's rights watchdog stressed that Australia was obliged under the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child to act in the best interest of minors.

"This decision by the High Court greatly concerns us as these children and their families face a great risk in being sent to a place that cannot be considered safe nor adequate," the UN Committee on the Rights of the Child said in Geneva.

The High Court decided 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 as a deterrent to potential boat migrants, 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 said after the verdict was announced.

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

Amnesty International said it continually received "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," said Australian Green party senator Sarah Hanson-Young.

There have been several riots at Australia's offshore detention centres on Nauru and Manus Island in the Pacific, and on 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.

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.

Immigration Minister Peter Dutton told broadcaster ABC on Tuesday that the government remained committed to its offshore processing policy. He also said that allegations of assault and sexual assault in detention centres were taken extremely seriously.

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