Australia's plan to send asylum seekers to Malaysia was Sunday hit with a legal challenge, with a refugee lawyer seeking an injunction stopping the transfer of the first group to the Asian nation.
As the government confirmed that some of the 50 or so boatpeople due to be removed within days under the controversial refugee swap were refusing food, lawyer David Manne said he had launched proceedings in the High Court.
"This is about life or death matters and our clients are challenging the government's power to expel them to Malaysia where they fear they will not be protected and they are at real risk of harm," Manne told AFP.
Australia plans to send up to 800 asylum seekers to Malaysia in return for accepting 4,000 registered refugees from that country over four years under a deal designed to stop boatpeople from landing in Australia.
Manne, from the Refugee and Immigration Legal Centre in Melbourne, said he was representing 41 of the 55 asylum seekers who arrived by boat in Australia last week and who had been expected to leave for Malaysia within days.
"Australian law requires that their claims for refugee protection should be considered here in Australia instead of expelling them to Malaysia," he said.
But the government said it was prepared for protests and legal challenges and vowed the deal would go ahead despite concerns among rights campaigners that Malaysia has not signed up to the UN convention on refugees.
"We are determined to implement this," Immigration Minister Chris Bowen told Channel Ten ahead of the legal challenge Sunday.
"People who come to Australia by boat can work on the basis that they will be returned to Malaysia, regardless of any protest activity."
Two boats carrying a total of more than 100 suspected asylum seekers, including children, have arrived in Australia since the deal was signed, with the latest vessel detected on Sunday.
The immigration department confirmed that some from the first boat, which arrived at Australia's remote Indian Ocean detention centre on Christmas Island two days ago, were rejecting meals.
"A small number of the group that arrived on Friday have now missed consecutive meals," a spokeswoman told AFP, adding that they were being encouraged to eat and drink and their welfare was being closely monitored.
Bowen said the new arrangement was designed to eradicate people-smuggling networks, and already appeared to have led to a fall in asylum seekers coming to Australia.
But the opposition said the change would not hamper people-smuggling.
"Boats have been continually arriving at a rate of one per week since the Malaysian people-swap agreement was announced (in early May)," spokesman Scott Morrison said, adding that almost 700 boatpeople had landed since then.
Asylum seekers arriving by boat to Australia peaked at close to 7,000 in 2010, but closer to 2,000 boatpeople have arrived this year.
Under the deal with Kuala Lumpur, Australia has agreed to pay for the basic health care of asylum seekers sent to Malaysia -- where they will join 90,000 registered refugees -- and their children's education.
Rights groups have raised concerns about the transfer of children and unaccompanied minors offshore.