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Tampa asylum seekers' fate back in court

By CNN's Grant Holloway

MELBOURNE, Australia (CNN) -- The fate of asylum seekers sent to the Pacific Island of Nauru by the Australian government is back before the courts.

A High Court justice on Monday granted civil rights lawyer Eric Vardalis the right to seek to appeal a ruling by a lower court on the issue.

That Federal Court backed a government decision to block a group of asylum seekers from entering Australian territory.

The asylum seekers in question had been rescued from a sinking ferry in international waters near Indonesia by a Norwegian freighter, MS Tampa, and taken to the outlying Australian territory of Christmas Island.

But the Australian government refused to let the asylum seekers disembark, sending troops onto the ship prevent their making landfall.

It then brokered a deal whereby those asylum seekers, and several subsequent boatloads, were transferred to Nauru, New Zealand and Papua New Guinea to have their refugee claims assessed.

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The decision to disallow the asylum seekers access to Australia has already been the subject of two court cases.

Vardalis told CNN Monday he believed the asylum seekers had the right to have their refugee claims processed under Australian law.

He said the government had "avoided by design" the laws of Australia's Migration Act.

The decision on whether Vardalis can take the appeal process to Australia's highest court will begin on Dec. 14.

Vardalis said the government had "fiercely opposed" his application for leave to appeal.

Meanwhile, the Prime Minister of the Melanesian nation of Vanuatu, Edward Natapei, has warned his fellow Pacific Island leaders to be wary of Australia's push for them to take more asylum seekers.

Natapei told a meeting of the heads of various regional and sub-regional organisations in the Vanuatu capital of Port Vila Monday that the Pacific was in no position to sustain an influx of refugees, the Australian Broadcasting Corporation reports.

Referring to Australia as one of the big brothers of the Pacific, Natapei said he was concerned that these big brothers chose to see the smaller Pacific nations as their refugee outlets.

Debate in Fiji

The warning also comes as debate heats up in Fiji over an Australian proposal for that nation to take up to 1,000 asylum seekers.

Although Australia would foot the bill for building, securing and maintaining a Fijian detention facility, many Fijians are arguing that it should not be buying into a problem of Australia's own making.

Fiji's Minister for Foreign Affairs and External Trade, Kaliopate Tavola, said last week the Fiiian government had received a proposal on the matter and cabinet had appointed a task force to look into it.

Tavola said the task force would not rush into the issue as it needed more details on how the asylum seekers would be dealt with if a deal was finalised between Australia and Fiji.

It is unlikely a decision will be reached before December.

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