Australia’s top court says it's legal to hold refugees in island detention camps

A group of around twenty protesters occupy Australian Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull's electoral office, demanding the end to the policy of offshore detention of asylum seekers, in the Sydney suburb of Edgecliff, Australia, on Oct. 14, 2015.

A group of around 20 protesters occupy Australian Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull's electoral office, demanding the end to the policy of offshore detention of asylum seekers, in the Sydney suburb of Edgecliff, Australia, on Oct. 14, 2015.

Many Australians are outraged after the country's top court ruled on Wednesday that the federal government’s controversial policy of holding asylum seekers in offshore detention centers was legal.

Wednesday's High Court decision means more than 250 people currently in Australia, including 37 babies born in the country, can be sent to the Pacific island nation of Nauru as early as this weekend.

Among those facing deportation are women who have been sexually assaulted and a 5-year-old boy who was allegedly raped at the Nauru center before he was brought to the mainland for medical treatment.

Using the hashtag #LetThemStay, human rights lawyers, politicians, religious groups and ordinary people flooded Facebook and Twitter with messages of shock, anger and disbelief at the 6-1 majority ruling.

Many of the posts are urging people to attend nationwide protests on Thursday to ramp up pressure on the government to let the asylum seekers remain in Australia. They're also calling for the government to close the offshore detention centers on Papua New Guinea’s Manus Island and Nauru, where more than 1,400 people are being held. 

Daniel Webb on Twitter

“Look at these babies faces, think about what we all know happens on Nauru — molestation and rape, illness and neglect, murder. See you on the streets tomorrow,” Domani Madigan wrote on Facebook.

Richard Di Natale on Twitter

“Imagine if it was your child, brother, sister, niece or nephew,” Matthew Richards also posted on Facebook.

Kate Moon on Twitter

“Not illegal. Still immoral. Offshore detention is systematic cruelty perpetrated on our behalf and we condone it with our silence. Sign petitions, attend protests, let our government know that this is not what we want,” Joel Holwerda said on Facebook.

Common Grace on Twitter

The High Court case was brought on behalf of a Bangladeshi woman who had been detained on Nauru before being sent to Australia for medical treatment, where she gave birth to a baby girl.

In an attempt to stop authorities from sending the woman back to the island, lawyers mounted a legal challenge, arguing it was unconstitutional for the Australian government to fund and operate detention centers in another country.

But during the nine-month-long court case the government amended and passed laws with bipartisan support to make sure the funding of the centers was legally watertight.

The appalling conditions inside Australia's offshore detention centers and the deteriorating mental health of many of the people held there — some of whom have been in detention for years hoping to be allowed into Australia — are well documented and have drawn scathing criticism from the United Nations and other human rights organizations, which accuse the government of breaching international laws.

There have been reports of torture, murder, sexual abuse and rape inside the camps, but whistleblowers risk criminal prosecution if they speak out under tough laws that came into force last year. 

A UN report found detainees were being held in "cruel," "inhuman" and "degrading" conditions, and even Australian lawmakers said conditions on Nauru were not "appropriate or safe" for detainees. 

Yet the government insists its tough border-control policies — which include turning back people-smuggling boats trying to reach Australia, and resettling people found to be genuine refugees in Papua New Guinea or Cambodia — have saved lives by deterring people from making the dangerous journey and drowning at sea.

"The people smugglers will not prevail over our sovereignty," Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull told parliament after the High Court decision was announced.

"Our borders are secure. The line has to be drawn somewhere and it is drawn at our border."