By Jane Wardell
SYDNEY (Reuters) - The United Nations on Thursday strongly criticized an Australian court ruling that paves the way for the deportation of dozens of infants born to asylum seekers as church leaders offered sanctuary to refugees at risk of abuse if they were returned to a South Pacific island detention center.
The High Court on Wednesday rejected a legal test case brought by an unidentified Bangladeshi woman that challenged Australia's right to deport detained asylum seekers to Nauru, about 3,000 km (1,800 miles) northeast of Australia.
Some 267 people who were brought from Nauru to Australia for medical treatment, including up to 80 children, are now at risk of being returned to the detention center that houses around 500 people. The center has been widely criticized by the U.N. and other human rights agencies for harsh conditions and reports of systemic child abuse.
"We believe that transferring these 267 individuals to Nauru could further damage their physical and mental health, and 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," Rupert Colville, the spokesman for the U.N. High Commissioner for Human Rights, said in an emailed statement.
Colville said the group includes more than 12 women and at least one child who have suffered sexual assault or harassment while in Nauru. It also includes 37 children born in Australia.
"Sending these children to Nauru could contravene Australia’s obligations under the Convention on the Rights of the Child," he said.
Under Australia’s immigration policy, asylum seekers attempting to reach the country by boat are intercepted and sent to camps on the island nation of Nauru or on Manus island in Papua New Guinea.
While the numbers of people attempting to reach Australia are small in comparison with the floods of asylum seekers in Europe, the issue is a big political challenge for Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull.
The pressure was ratcheted up on Thursday as several churches offered sanctuary to the asylum seekers.
The Anglican Dean of Brisbane, Peter Catt, declared the city's cathedral a sanctuary for those who have suffered trauma and risk abuse if they are returned to Nauru.
"This fundamentally goes against our faith, so our church community is compelled to act, despite the possibility of individual penalty against us," Catt said.
The concept of sanctuary, a religious tenet that dates back to the Old Testament, has never been tested under Australian law.
(Reporting By Jane Wardell; editing by Grant McCool)