Immigration Minister Scott Morrison has been forced to capitulate and
agree to bring to Australia the 157 Sri Lankan Tamil asylum seekers who
have been held in a Customs vessel on the high seas for weeks.
The government has made the reluctant concession in order to get
India to take back as many as possible of these people, who are
currently the subject of a High Court case that the Coalition can’t
afford to lose.
India, from where the Tamils embarked, has now gone beyond its usual
practice of just accepting its own nationals by promising to consider
the return of residents who may be Sri Lankan nationals. Morrison told a
news conference on Friday the government “greatly appreciated” this
“generous extension of Indian government policy”.
It is not known whether there was any trade off to encourage
co-operation, or whether the Indians might later try to send the Sri
Lankans home. Nor is it known what would happen to any people India
would not take, beyond Morrison being adamant that “they won’t remain in
Australia. They will not be resettled in Australia”.
The High Court’s full bench is due to hear the Tamils' case on August
5, with the central question being whether the government has the power
to detain people on the high seas and send them to a country where they
may not be safe. The case followed the government returning a boatload
of Sri Lankans home after perfunctory processing at sea.
Morrison claimed the legal challenge had no influence on the
government’s present actions. But with the case’s outcome hard to
predict the government has been desperate to find a destination for
these people. That could well reduce its exposure to an adverse
decision. If the government lost the case, that could have significant
implications for its border control policy.
The Guardian reported
on Friday that the Tamils were on their way to Cocos Islands, to be
flown from there to the mainland and the Curtin detention centre.
Morrison insisted that where they were going was an operational matter and would not provide any details.
And he declined to acknowledge the arrival of these people in
Australia would spoil the government’s record. In the last seven months
there had not been a single successful people smuggling venture to
Australia and this remained the case, he said.
Morrison was in India this week to press for a deal. The Times of
India described him as the “embattled” immigration minister. The Indians
wanted to process the Tamils in Australia; the government had no choice
but to go along with that.
While the agreement with India is one step forward for Morrison,
there could be more grief ahead for him in relation to these people.
Despite his protestations to the contrary, the conditions in which
the asylum seekers, who include children, have been kept on the ship
sound very bad – they were let into the open for only a small part of
the day. Once they are on Australian soil, more information will come
The government has been able to brush off too easily questions about
how it is treating detainees. This week Australian Human Rights
Commission president Gillian Triggs strongly criticised conditions for
the children on Christmas Island. In the Howard era Liberal moderates
took up the cause of children; these days the voices of the (few)
moderates are not heard.
Unlike his colleague Joe Hockey, under fire from some colleagues post
budget, Morrison is a hero to many of his fellow Liberals for stopping
But he’s also had some significant defeats. He has beaten (more or
less) the people smugglers, but the refugee advocates have kept him on
The Senate wouldn’t allow the reintroduction of temporary protection
visas. Morrison tried to circumvent this by imposing a “cap” on
permanent protection visas, as a device to ensure no more would be
issued. This was successfully challenged in the High Court, in a case
run on behalf of an Ethiopian teenager who had arrived by boat.
Unwilling to be thwarted, Morrison raised the prospect of denying
visas on “national interest” grounds. But in a turnaround after
receiving a further submission from the boy’s lawyers, he granted a
permanent visa, rather than face the prospect of more action in the High
After the secret operation in which Australia handed over the
boatload of asylum seekers to the Sri Lankans, the advocates stepped in
to stop any repeat effort with the second boatload by obtaining a High
Court injunction, the start of the case now underway.
The advocates and the High Court have done a good deal more to keep
Morrison and the government accountable than has the opposition, which
for political reasons more often than not pulls its punches.
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