SYDNEY, Australia - Some 157 asylum-seekers who were detained at sea for weeks by Australia have been sent to the Pacific island of Nauru after rejecting a return to India, officials said Saturday.
The group, thought to be mostly ethnic Tamils from Sri Lanka and including 50 children, left the Indian port of Pondicherry in June but were intercepted by Australian authorities and held on a Customs ship for weeks.
They were eventually brought to the Australian mainland so they could be interviewed by Indian consular officials with a view to returning them to that country, but Immigration Minister Scott Morrison said Saturday they all refused to meet the officials.
"The 157 illegal maritime arrivals... have been transferred to Nauru overnight for offshore processing, following their decision to refuse to meet with Indian consular officials," Morrison said in a statement.
Morrison said the government had provided a "rare opportunity" for many of those onboard the vessel to "go back to where they had been living in safety in India, where they have family and friends, rather than go to Nauru".
"It is very disappointing that after having had access to their legal representatives on July 29, all 157 illegal maritime arrivals coincidentally chose not to talk to Indian consular officials," he said.
Lawyers representing many of the group have challenged their treatment by Australia in the High Court, claiming false imprisonment, but Morrison said the government had acted methodically since they were picked up.
He has previously said the group were likely economic migrants who had been living in safety in India for some time.
Morrison said Saturday that by refusing to speak to Indian officials the group were now unable to take advantage of the offer made by the Indian government to consider taking them back, even if they were not Indian citizens.
"There will also now be around 50 more children on Nauru, many of which, if not all, could have been going back to India," Morrison said.
The group is the first boatload of asylum-seekers to reach the Australian mainland since December, after Canberra hardened its policy on unauthorised boats to ensure some were turned back where possible.
Under Australia's policy to stop people-smuggling boats, all asylum-seekers arriving by boat are sent to Nauru and Papua New Guinea for processing and resettlement, even if they are found to be refugees.
Morrison said in the current case, if they were found to be refugees they will be resettled on Nauru, not in Australia.
"If they are not found to be a refugee they will go back to Sri Lanka, not India. Going back to India, where they are likely to have family and friends, is no longer an option for those who were living there," he said.