By Colin Packham
SYDNEY (Reuters) - Lawyers acting for 900 people held in Papua New Guinea on behalf of Australia asked a court on Friday to hasten compensation claims for their illegal detention, kicking off the first stage of legal action that could see the refugees return to Australia.
Controversies arising from Australia's immigration policy have become a major headache for Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull during campaigning for elections set to be held on July 2.
Under the hard-line immigration policy, anyone intercepted trying to reach Australia by boat is sent for processing to camps on Manus Island in Papua New Guinea or on Nauru. They are never eligible to be resettled in Australia.
Last month, the Supreme Court of Papua New Guinea ruled the detention of refugees on Manus Island was illegal, forcing the government to announce it would close the camp.
The fate of the detainees remains uncertain, with Papua New Guinea and Australia each arguing the other is responsible for resettling them.
Lawyers for 898 Manus Island detainees have asked the Supreme Court of the tiny Pacific Ocean nation for compensation of 1,500 kina ($462.75) for every day they were held illegally.
"When you consider that some of the men have been held in detention for 1,000 days, the total compensation package will be worth A$1 billion," said Ben Lomai, a lawyer for most of the detainees. The figure is equivalent to about $728 million.
It was not immediately clear if the Supreme Court decision could apply retrospectively.
Lomai said once the matter of compensation had been resolved, the refugees' lawyers would file motions for their immediate return to Australia.
Should the detainees be successful, they could arrive in Australia in the middle of one of the longest poll campaigns in its history, putting the spotlight on the tough immigration policy.
Papua New Guinea says it has ended detention of the asylum seekers by relaxing restrictions to allow them to leave the detention center during the day.
But few detainees benefit, refugee advocates have said, as other restrictions make their exit prohibitively difficult.
For instance, a detainee wishing to leave must sign up for one of three bus services to a nearby town and return to the camp in the evening.
A 22-year-old Somali mother and her newborn baby were transferred to Australia from a detention center on Nauru after the woman gave birth prematurely, Australia's Department of Immigration confirmed.
It said the two were receiving "appropriate medical treatment", while refugee advocates said both were in critical condition.
($1=1.3729 Australian dollars)
(Reporting by Colin Packham; Editing by Clarence Fernandez)