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 out.
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 the boats.
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 run.
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 Court.
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.