The Australian border protection vessel carrying 157 Tamil asylum seekers is on its way to the Australian territory of the Cocos Islands, from where the department of immigration plans to transfer the asylum seekers to immigration detention on the Australian mainland, Guardian Australia can reveal.
The asylum seekers have spent nearly a month detained at sea, but the whereabouts of the boat and the welfare of those on board have been closely guarded secrets, with only senior personnel of Australia’s hardline border protection regime Operation Sovereign Borders briefed on its location.
But senior sources have told Guardian Australia of the government’s plans. It is understood that the government plans to take the asylum seekers to Curtin detention centre in Western Australia, rather than the offshore centre on Christmas Island. The customs vessel carrying the asylum seekers will land on the Cocos Islands on Saturday.
The decision to allow the Tamils to land would mark the first asylum seeker boat arrival in Australia for more than six months and would represent a blow to the Coalition’s hardline stance on “stopping the boats”.
Guardian Australia understands that detention centre staff on Christmas Island are being readied to fly to the Cocos Islands.
The decision to move the asylum seekers to detention in Australia comes amid an ongoing high court case into the legality of their detention under the Maritime Powers Act.
It is unclear what effect the government’s plans will have on the case, and lawyers acting for the asylum seekers said they had had no confirmation from the government of the plans.
It also follows a request from the immigration minister, Scott Morrison, to the Indian government that it take back the 157 people on board.
India had sought consular access to those on board to see if any held Indian citizenship, but it is understood they had no plans to accept the return of any people of other nationalities.
A spokesman for the Indian high commission in Canberra said on Friday no consular access had been so far been granted.
The boat left Pondicherry in southern India around 11 June and was intercepted by Australian border patrol on 29 June.
The Tamils, including 37 children, have been locked in windowless rooms for 21 hours a day, in bunks that stack four high. They have had no access to qualified interpreters and have not stated their claims for protection.
It is unclear how their arrival would be registered as the government has already barred them access to Australia following a meeting of the national security committee on 1 July.
Morrison later confirmed at a press conference that the asylum seekers would be brought to Australia. (The Guardian)