The Australian Government Is Bringing 157 Tamil Asylum Seekers At Sea For 6 Weeks Ashore As High Court Challenge Looms

A 2012 photo of the Ocean Protector with a refugee boat. Photo: Scott Fisher/Getty

In a major policy shift for the Australian Government, immigration minister Scott Morrison has announced a boatload of 157 Tamil asylum seekers who’ve spent the last month at sea aboard the customs vessel Ocean Protector will be shifted to an immigration detention centre on the Australian mainland.

The decision comes as the full bench of the High Court is set to hear a claim on behalf of the group from August 5. The Court is looking at whether the Abbott government has the power to intercept and return the asylum seekers to another country, and this latest move throws the case into doubt. The government was embarrassed by the High Court earlier this month after it granted an injunction against attempts to return the group to Sri Lankan authorities.

Morrison denied his decision was influenced by the High Court case.

It seems the normally secretive minister was forced to reveal the move after The Guardian broke news of the plan this morning, but he refused to confirm details of the report or say where the group would be detained, adding it was “subject to operational consideration”. The Curtin detention centre in Western Australia is a likely destination.

Morrison said he was working with Indian officials who have agreed to take back any nationals and potentially also Sri Lankans who are Indian non-citizen residents. He had just returned from meetings in New Delhi and said moving the asylum seekers to the Australian mainland was so that Indian officials could assess their identities and take any nationals home.

“It is our intention those who can be returned should and must be returned,” Morrison said. “They won’t remain in Australia. They will not be resettled in Australia. That is the policy of the Australian Government and there is no change to our policy on any front and more importantly there is no change to our resolve.”

In response, Amnesty International said it welcomed the move to bring the group ashore month-long ocean imprisonment.

“This recent development shows that stranding a boatload of people in the middle of the sea, in an effort to ‘stop the boats’, has achieved nothing,” said Graeme McGregor, Amnesty International’s Refugee Campaign Coordinator. “All it has done is prolong and exacerbate the suffering of more than 150 asylum seekers and their families.

“We strongly oppose the involuntary return of asylum seekers to any country that hasn’t signed the UN Refugee Convention,” he said.

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