Australia's highest court Wednesday voided a transfer of asylum seekers to Malaysia, ruling the government's attempt to stem an influx of boat people from poor, war-torn countries could not assure their legal rights would be protected.
The High Court ruled 6-1 to make permanent an injunction that has prevented Australia from transferring 800 asylum seekers to Malaysia in return for Malaysia sending 4,000 registered refugees for resettlement. The ruling cannot be appealed, but the government said it was considering its options.
Government lawyers had argued in court that Australia could lawfully declare Malaysia a safe third country to process refugee claims even though it had no domestic or international legal obligations to protect refugees.
The court said in a statement that Malaysia has not signed the U.N. Convention on Refugees and the deal with Australia did not legally bind Malaysia to recognize the status of refugees under its domestic law. It said any suitable third country must have obligations under international or domestic law to protect asylum seekers and refugees.
The court also said Immigration Minister Chris Bowen had no legal power to remove from Australia asylum seekers whose refugee claims have not yet been determined.
Australia has long attracted asylum seekers hoping to start a new life, with more than 6,200 arriving by boat last year. Most are from Afghanistan, Sri Lanka, Iran and Iraq, and use Malaysia or Indonesia as a starting point for a dangerous sea journey to Australia.
The government had maintained the deal struck in consultation with the U.N. refugee agency, UNHCR, would withstand any legal challenge. Human rights groups had criticized the plan, arguing that asylum seekers are treated poorly in Malaysia, which has not signed the U.N. refugee treaty.
Bowen said the rate of asylum seekers reaching Australia by boat had slowed since the Malaysian deal was announced in May. He now expected people smugglers would capitalize on the court ruling and boat arrivals would gather pace.
"Let's make no bones about it: Today's decision by the High Court is a profoundly disappointing one," Bowen told reporters.
"It is a significant blow to our efforts to break the people smugglers' business model," he added.
The government had sought urgent legal advice on the ruling's ramifications and the government would consider its options, he said.
Malaysia's government pledged in a statement to work closely with Canberra to determine their next move, adding it still believed the deal was "the best way to tackle the menace of people traffickers in a way that protects the interests of Australia, Malaysia and above all, the immigrants involved."
Amnesty International welcomed the ruling as "a landmark victory for human rights."
The case was brought to the court by 16 asylum seekers who were to become the first to be flown to Malaysia from the Australian territory of Christmas Island.
Their lawyer, David Manne, who leads the Melbourne-based Refugee and Immigration Legal Center, called on the government to quickly process his clients' refugee claims "rather than leaving them locked up in limbo."
"I certainly feel delighted for our clients who were very fearful of being sent to Malaysia _ they were absolutely petrified of being sent there," Manne told reporters.
"They're extremely relieved," he added.
Malaysia has already begun sending registered refugees to Australia from among 93,000 now in that Southeast Asian nation.
Bowen said Australia would likely still accept the 4,000 but take in fewer from other nations.
The ruling came after two fires broke out Wednesday at an immigration detention center in Darwin. Both blazes were extinguished and no one was hurt, an immigration department spokesman said on customary condition of anonymity.
Most of the protesters were Indonesian crew members from boats carrying asylum seekers to Australia, the official said. He had no further details and would not elaborate on what sparked the protest.
The protesters were upset officials had not agreed to certain requests regarding how they could celebrate the end of Ramadan, said refugee advocate Ian Rintoul, who spoke by phone with detainees.
The fire extensively damaged 20 rooms, said Rintoul, a spokesman for the Refugee Action Coalition. No asylum seekers were involved in the protest, he said.
Protests at detention centers have become relatively common.
Associated Press writers Kristen Gelineau in Sydney and Sean Yoong in Kuala Lumpur contributed to this report.