SYDNEY — Australia called on Tuesday for a legal challenge to its refugee swap deal with Malaysia to be heard as soon as possible, warning that any delay would play into the hands of people smugglers.
Canberra's plan to send up to 800 boat people to the Southeast Asian nation in exchange for 4,000 of its registered refugees hit a snag Monday when Australia's High Court froze the first transfer pending a legal hearing.
Sought by a humanitarian lawyer representing some of the Malaysia-bound asylum seekers, the order has delayed their removal by at least two weeks so the full bench of the court can decide whether it is legal.
Immigration Minister Chris Bowen vowed not to be deterred by the challenge and called for the August 22 hearing to be brought forward.
"It is likely that we will call for an early hearing. This is important and urgent," Bowen told Sky News.
"There will be people smugglers out there spinning this court case and trying to sell the uncertainty," he added.
"It's important that we make it very clear to people smugglers and asylum seekers and everybody else that Australia is a closed destination for boat travel for asylum seekers."
In the case, refugee lawyer David Manne is arguing that the group has the right to have their claims assessed in Australia under the UN refugee convention -- and that sending them to Malaysia, not a signatory to the convention, means it cannot guarantee they will be properly treated.
Human rights groups have accused Australia of risking the health and safety of vulnerable people, including children.
The first group of registered refugees from Malaysia is due to arrive in Australia for resettlement this week, increasing pressure on Canberra.
Bowen stressed that it was only an "interim injunction" and he was confident that the swap pact, formally signed last month, was on "very" firm legal ground, despite humanitarian concerns.
"The important part is... that Malaysia does allow people to have their claims assessed by the UNHCR (the United Nations refugee agency) -- that has occurred," Bowen said.
"And further to that, Malaysia has given firm commitments as part of this arrangement with Australia."
The minister said he had not taken the decision to expel asylum seekers lightly.
"I make no apologies for a tough line, and I make no apologies for arguing the case vigorously," said Bowen.
"It is not morally acceptable to me to say to people, 'If you risk your life on a boat to Australia, that will give you a better chance for resettlement'."
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