Australian court rules that government acted legally in turning away refugees

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The Australian government has emerged victorious from its three-week battle to keep out unwanted asylum-seekers after the Federal Court yesterday overturned a ruling that it acted illegally in turning away a boatload of Afghan migrants in the Indian Ocean.

The court's decision cleared the way for those rescued from shipwreck by the Norwegian freighter Tampa to disembark on the tiny South Pacific island of Nauru as early as today.

The Australian naval troop carrier HMAS Manoora, which transported them on a week-long sea voyage from Christmas Island, was waiting 20 miles off Nauru last night.

The operation to transfer passengers to dry land may not be straightforward, however, with 237 Iraqis and Palestinians intercepted in international waters in a separate incident last night refusing to leave the Manoora and demanding to be taken to Australia. The 433 Afghans have accepted that they must now disembark.

One of the lawyers who mounted the legal action on behalf of civil liberties groups and the asylum-seekers, Eric Vadarlis, said after the ruling: "It's quite clear that according to Australian law at the moment, it's open game on refugees. If they come near our shores, we are allowed to push them out. I can't believe this is happening in Australia."

The International Office of Migration, a non-governmental organisation that looks after refugees, described the situation aboard the Manoora as tense. An IOM representative, Mark Getchell, who flew to the ship by helicopter, said more vocal members of the group – who he said were of middle-class background, with Western-style clothes and fluent English – were intimidating others who wanted to get off. "They still want to go to Australia and they're not listening to anything else," he said.

On Nauru, Australian soldiers are working round the clock to construct makeshift tin and plastic shelters, where the asylum-seekers could spend up to six months while their claims are processed. A plan to house them in seaside bungalows was dropped because of local landowners' demands.

The near bankrupt island is taking the boat people in return for about £8m in aid from the Canberra government, which was criticised by the international community for refusing to allow the Tampa's passengers to land on Christmas Island, the Australian outpost 200 miles south of Indonesia.

Philip Ruddock, the Immigration Minister, welcomed the decision of the full bench of the court in Melbourne, saying the judgment would be a "red light" to people smugglers.