Lawyers fear the Turnbull government is secretly plotting the quick return of asylum seekers to Nauru after it allegedly suggested a 72-hour notice period for the deportations would soon be lifted, meaning they could be returned with little warning or legal help.
The Human Rights Law Centre said the government had indicated to its legal team that the notice period for many of the 267 asylum seekers and refugees "will soon cease to apply". The government undertook to provide the notice during a High Court legal challenge to offshore detention, which it won.
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Churches have offered refuge to asylum seekers in Australia at risk of being returned to Nauru after yesterday's High Court decision.
The centre's director of legal advocacy, Daniel Webb, said the government "appears to be moving to rapidly clear the way for fast-track deportations without notice".
"Not only does it want to be able to return 267 incredibly vulnerable people to harm, it wants to do so suddenly and secretively without warning," said Mr Webb.
The Department of Immigration and Border Protection would not confirm the centre's claims, saying the matters were "subject to ongoing legal proceedings" and it was not appropriate to comment further.
The government has previously said each case for return would be decided on its merits and there would be no "bulk determinations".
However incoming Assistant Minister for Multiculturalism Craig Laundy on Tuesday reportedly told the ABC that the future of the 267 people would be decided within a fortnight, and former immigration minister Scott Morrison has said the government must adhere to its tough border protection policies.
Mr Webb said following the High Court ruling, the Immigration Department had "begun moving to urgently have all remaining matters struck off from the High Court's list and have refused to agree to provide reasonable notice of any deportations thereafter".
It is understood there are fears that once the matters are struck off, the department will determine that the 72-hour notice period no longer applies.
"Families are terrified that one night soon they could be woken in the middle of the night and returned to harm under the cover of darkness. One mother told me that every time the door opens she is terrified that it is guards who've come to take her and her child back to Nauru," he said.
"It's a matter of basic fairness and due process that vulnerable people have the chance to speak with their lawyers before being bundled onto a plane and deported."
Immigration officials have been known to transfer asylum seekers between detention facilities with little notice, partly to prevent them becoming anxious and potentially resisting the move.
One mother told me that every time the door opens she is terrified that it is guards who've come to take her and her child back to Nauru
Lady Cilento Children's Hospital in Brisbane is refusing to discharge an asylum seeker toddler known as "Asha" until "a suitable home environment is identified", amid fears she will be returned to Nauru.
Mr Webb said the government had undertaken to give 72 hours notice before deporting Asha after the centre filed an emergency High Court proceeding on the family's behalf.
"We made repeated requests for the government to agree to at least provide reasonable notice if it planned to deport this child, but they refused. We were left with no choice but to file an urgent case in the High Court," he said.
"[We] can not sit back and do nothing while our government tries to rip a baby from her hospital bed and send her to languish in a tent on Nauru."
High-level immigration sources have told Fairfax Media that the toddler and her family are not facing imminent return to Nauru.
Mr Webb claimed that Asha was born in Australia but had previously been deported without notice once before, at the age of five months.
He said guards "stormed her family's room while they were sleeping. They took her from her mother's arms and restrained her mother and father in cable ties. They forced the family into a van, then onto a plane to Nauru. That's a horrible thing to go through once – we'll do everything we can to make sure it doesn't happen again".
The department has been asked to verify this claim.