Trouble for Australia's off-shore immigration plans

Asylum-seekers at a refugee camp in Nauru in 2001
Image caption The government was considering re-opening the John Howard-era detention centre on Nauru island

Australia's government may be unable to carry out its plans for the off-shore processing of asylum-seekers, the immigration minister says.

Chris Bowen said that was the advice from the solicitor-general following last week's High Court ruling against an asylum deal with Malaysia.

The ruling has thrown the government's high-profile plans to control immigration into disarray.

Prime Minister Julia Gillard insisted on Friday that she would not step down.

The High Court ruled on Wednesday that her plan to send 800 asylum-seekers to Malaysia in return for 4,000 refugees over four years was unlawful.

The controversial plan - dubbed the Malaysia Solution - was supposed to send a tough message to boat people that they would not be processed in Australia.

But the court ruled that Malaysia did not offer adequate protection for refugees.

Change of law?

The Australian government had responded by saying it would consider other options - including re-opening immigration centres in Papua New Guinea and Nauru island set up under the former conservative prime minister John Howard.

Those centres were closed when Ms Gillard's predecessor Kevin Rudd took power in 2007.

But Mr Bowen said on Sunday that the government's lawyers had - having reviewed the court judgement - advised that even this might not be possible.

"The solicitor-general and two other senior counsel can have no confidence that an arrangement with PNG or Nauru is possible under existing law as a result of this judgement," he told the Australian Broadcasting Corporation (ABC).

He said the government would now "carefully consider all its options", including amending the Migration Act.

The conservative opposition - which has repeatedly backed Nauru as a viable option - said it would work with the government to change the law.

"If the government wants to put offshore processing beyond legal doubt by amending the Migration Act, the Coalition's prepared to work with the government to bring that about," the leader of the opposition, Tony Abbot, told reporters in Sydney.

Immigration is one of Australia's most sensitive public issues, the BBC's Duncan Kennedy says.

Last week's court defeat was not only a legal blow to the prime minister, but was also seen as a heavy political setback - raising further questions from her opponents about her government's overall level of competency, he reports.

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