Australia to move detained asylum group onshore

Australian Immigration Minister Scott Morrison at a press conference in Sydney on 25 July 2014 Image copyright AFP
Image caption Scott Morrison says those who can be returned will be sent back to India

A group of 157 asylum seekers held at sea will be brought to the Australian mainland to be detained, Australia's immigration minister says.

The group have been held at sea by customs officials for almost a month.

Rights groups had voiced serious concerns about their treatment.

The case came to light earlier this month as Australia detained a separate boat of Sri Lankan asylum seekers, screened their asylum claims at sea and returned them to Sri Lanka.

Human rights activists filed a legal challenge aimed at preventing similar handling of this second group of people.

Lawyers say the group, which departed from India, includes Sri Lankan Tamils.

Rights groups say Tamils can still face intimidation and violence in Sri Lanka, five years after the end of the civil war, which pitted the majority Sinhalese Sri Lankan military against Tamil separatists.

Under international treaties, Australia cannot return people to places where they might face persecution. UN refugee body UNHCR has also expressed concern about the fairness of on-water screening of asylum claims.

Image copyright AFP
Image caption Earlier this month, Australia returned a boat of asylum seekers to Sri Lanka

'Will not settle'

Australian officials have not revealed where the group were being held.

Immigration Minister Scott Morrison said on Friday that - following talks with Indian officials - they would be brought to Australia.

Consular officials from the Indian High Commission would be given access to determine identities and "arrange where possible the return of any persons to India".

India would also consider taking non-nationals who were Indian residents, he said.

It was not clear what might happen to those who did not fall into this category, nor was the extent to which asylum claims would be assessed addressed.

But Mr Morrison said no members of the group would be allowed to settle in Australia.

He declined to comment on where the group would be detained but local reports say they are being transferred to the Curtin detention centre via the Cocos Islands.

'Prolong suffering'

The move is an apparent set-back for the government, which enforces tough policies aimed at ending the arrival of asylum boats.

Australia detains all those who arrive by boat. In recent months detainees have been processed offshore, in camps in Papua New Guinea and Nauru. Those found to be refugees will be settled in PNG and Nauru, not Australia.

Reports have also emerged in recent months of Australia towing boats back to Indonesia, the most common embarkation point.

The government says the aim is to save lives by preventing people getting on dangerous boats. But refugee advocates and the UN have voiced increasing concern about the policies, with severe criticism of conditions in Australia's detention camps.

Responding to Mr Morrison's announcement, Amnesty International said the development showed that "stranding a boatload of people in the middle of the sea, in an effort to 'stop the boats', has achieved nothing".

"All it has done is prolong and exacerbate the suffering of more than 150 asylum seekers and their families," said Graeme McGregor, the group's refugee campaign co-ordinator.

All asylum seekers must have the opportunity to undergo a "full, fair and rigorous" assessment for refugee status, he said.

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