SYDNEY - Asylum-seekers held on an Australian customs vessel at sea for weeks were given lifeboats and told to make their own way back to India, a lawyer for the group said Monday.
The boatload of 157, who lawyer Hugh de Kretser said were mostly Christian Tamils fleeing persecution in Sri Lanka, set sail from India hoping to get to Australia.
"The clients we spoke to were absolutely terrified at what lay ahead for them," said de Kretser, who is executive director of the Human Rights Law Centre.
"They were terrified of the prospect of being dumped in the ocean on lifeboats, without experience in navigating or operating a boat and having to take responsibility for the families that were on the boat." The group, which includes 50 children, were picked up by Australian authorities towards the end of June.
They spent weeks on a customs boat, mostly locked in windowless rooms, before they were taken to Australia around July 25, their lawyers say.
Immigration Minister Scott Morrison, who claims they are mostly economic migrants, said they could be returned to India - even if not citizens of that country - under an agreement with New Delhi.
But all refused interviews with Indian consular officials on Australian soil and were instead transferred to a detention camp on the Pacific island of Nauru.
Morrison has previously refused to detail "on water" operations of Operation Sovereign Borders, the government's policy designed to break people-smuggling and stop asylum boats.
Asked specifically last week whether the group were offered orange lifeboats, he told the Australian Broadcasting Corporation: "I don't discuss those sorts of operational matters."