SYDNEY (Reuters) - A group of 157 migrants, thought to be Sri Lankan asylum seekers, arrived at a detention camp in Australia, government officials said on Monday, after having been held at sea by authorities for almost a month.
The asylum seekers are the first to reach Australian shores by boat since December, testing the conservative government’s policy of turning back boats carrying potential refugees, which has been criticized by rights group and the United Nations.
The Australian navy intercepted the boat en route from India several weeks ago. The migrants were finally brought ashore and put into the remote Curtin Detention Centre in outback Western Australia on Sunday and Monday.
The government decided to bring the group, which includes 50 children, to Australia after human rights lawyers began legal action in the High Court to stop them being sent to Sri Lanka and disputing the government’s right to assess asylum claims while they are at sea.
The High Court decided on Monday, after the group’s arrival in Australia, to drop that case, cancelling a hearing scheduled for next week, citing the detainees’ changed circumstances.
Hugh de Kretzer, a lawyer for some of the asylum seekers, said he did not believe any deportations would happen before new hearings.
“The High Court case that was proceeding was entirely about the Maritime Powers Act and the powers of the government at sea to intercept a vessel and take it somewhere other than Australia,” he said.
“Now that they’ve been brought to the Australian mainland, different legal questions arise as to the power of the government to seek to compel them to return to India or to Sri Lanka or anywhere else.”
Immigration Minister Scott Morrison said he was confident they were economic migrants and not entitled to asylum.
“These people have come from a safe country of India. They haven’t come from Sri Lanka,” he told ABC radio.
“If we can’t take people back to India, what is next? New Zealand? India are a vibrant democracy, they are a good partner, they’re working closely with us.”
India has agreed to take back any of its nationals among the group and its consular officials were due to begin interviewing them on Monday.
“If other nationality people are there who by our laws or international laws can be returned, it would be considered. Until we have the details, it’s a hypothetical situation,” Kuldeep Singh Dhatwalia, spokesman for India’s home ministry, said.
Indian police said on Monday they were holding two men from the southern port town of Puducherry who they believe were the owners of the boat. The case will be handed over to India’s Central Bureau of Investigation, a senior police official said.
The men were detained last week, the official added.
Some two dozen people on the boat have been traced to refugee camps in the south Indian state of Tamil Nadu, according to the Organisation for Eelam Refugees’ Rehabilitation, a group that works with Sri Lankan Tamil refugees who fled to India during the civil the war.
About 66,000 Sri Lankan Tamils have been living in 110 refugee camps in Tamil Nadu for years, some since the 1980s.
In addition to the camp refugees, about 40 Sri Lankans missing from fishing villages in the state were thought to be on the boat, the group said.
About 16,000 asylum seekers came on 220 boats to Australia in the first seven months of last year, but the government says there have been no illegal boat arrivals since December 2013.
Prime Minister Tony Abbott’s government had boasted of its success in deterring asylum seekers. Australia normally uses offshore detention centers in Papua New Guinea and the tiny South Pacific island nation of Nauru to process would-be refugees who arrive on boats.
Reporting by Matt Siegel and Jane Wardell; Additional reporting by Sruthi Gottipati in NEW DELHI and Sriram Srinivasan in CHENNAI; Editing by Robin Pomeroy