Following the stand taken by doctors, teachers and church leaders to prevent the transfer of 267 asylum seekers from the Australian mainland to Nauru and Manus Island detention centres, an open letter was launched at a Law Institute of Victoria forum on February 24. The letter to Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull was signed by members of almost 50 law firms, legal associations and jurists.
The letter calls on the PM to “let the 267 individuals at risk of removal to offshore processing centres stay in Australia” and goes on to “advocate for the end of offshore detention and request you bring all asylum seekers and refugees in regional processing facilities back to mainland Australia”.
In launching the letter, Daniel Webb, a Director of Legal Advocacy at the Human Rights Law Centre — who was also a member of the legal team that represented the families involved in the 'M68' High Court case — told the forum that since the High Court delivered its decision, he has had to make “a lot of phone calls to some pretty distraught clients, who are very afraid that one day soon they'll be sent back to Nauru or Manus.”
However, Webb said: “It is good to be able to tell them that around the country there are many people who are speaking out in support of them … and calling on our prime minister to let them stay. It means a lot to them to know that we aren't indifferent to their plight.”
Webb told the forum that thanks to documents released under Freedom of Information, it is clear that the legal team were “in a race against time” to file cases on behalf of 267 asylum seekers, while the government was rushing to deport any eligible asylum seekers back to Nauru and Manus Island.
Webb explained that, while the High Court case was not successful, due in part to a retrospective law passed by the government after the case commenced, and the opening of the Nauru detention centre on the eve of the High Court hearing, “As gut-wrenching as that decision was, the public response has been nothing short of inspiring.
We've seen doctors risk jail to speak out. We've seen churches offer sanctuary to people who are in need. We've seen the UN warn our government not to return any of these people to harm. We've seen every single state premier speak out and call on Turnbull to do the decent thing. We've seen the New Zealand Prime Minister join the chorus. Now today we're seeing the Law Institute and the legal profession do the same.
“As a lawyer for many of these vulnerable people I can't sit back and do nothing while they are returned to harm … but what gives me great hope is that I can see others from different places from different professions drawing the same line in the sand.
"The doctors at the Lady Cilento Hospital saying, 'we're not going to sit back and do nothing while baby Asha is ripped from her hospital bed and sent to a tent on Nauru'. A principal at a school in Glenroy saying he will not sit back and do nothing while kids are ripped from his classrooms and sent back to a tent on Nauru.
“So it is a big moment. Momentum is building. This is by far the best platform we've had in a long time to call for serious, sustainable long-term policy change. And for the first time in a while there is a genuine belief that we can win.”
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