On March 15, the federal Coalition government announced that 82 of the 83 Tamil refugees from Sri Lanka intercepted by the HMAS Success on February 21 are to be deported to Nauru, where they will be indefinitely detained.
The 82 have been imprisoned on Christmas Island since February 24. Christmas Island is Australian territory that the federal government's "Pacific solution" laws exclude from Australian jurisdiction for immigration purposes.
The remaining member of the group is being treated in a Perth hospital for shrapnel lodged in his head as a result of a Sri Lankan army bomb attack. Lawyers from the Refugee and Immigration Legal Centre have lodged a claim on his behalf for asylum in Australia.
The federal government has indicated that even if the United Nations High Commission for Refugees (UNHCR) grants refugee status to the Tamils, Australia will not give them residency and they will remain detained on Nauru until a third country accepts them, which could take years.
A spokesperson for the UNHCR as well as refugee advocacy groups have condemned the government's decision. Refugee Council of Australia spokesperson John Gibson said: "Those who have their claims for asylum processed on Nauru are denied access to legal advice and independent administrative and judicial review of the decision, basic safeguards necessary to ensure that each claim is given a full and fair hearing … Anyone who is aware of the escalation of the civil war in Sri Lanka realises that these asylum seekers are likely to have strong claims for protection."
The Asylum Seekers Resource Centre's Pamela Curr said: "This transfer will result in people … being dumped on Nauru and warehoused for as long as the Australian government can get away with it. It took five years before the last group of refugees became so broken in spirit and so mentally unwell that Australia was left with no other choice than to bring them to Australia."
A Just Australia's Kate Gauthier pointed out that the group includes an unaccompanied minor. "That this government will ship a lone child off to Nauru to be held indefinitely in conditions that have been found by numerous reports and investigations to be appalling displays an astounding lack of compassion."
Even the ALP, whose record has been to try to match the government's hard line on refugees, has opposed the Tamils' transfer to Nauru, although on economic rather than humanitarian grounds.
Five of the refugees spoke to ABC Radio's PM program on March 16, describing how they had been forced to flee by the war, and because of human rights abuses by the Sri Lankan army and pro-government paramilitaries. Nineteen-year-old Sanje Selvanainar told PM: "We [were] arrested by the army and detained and tortured. We [were] in the army camp over the 45 days. Our five friends [were] shot in front of me … We have suffered in Sri Lanka, then the Indian Ocean. We can't live in our country, that's why we came here."
The refugees said that they want their claims processed in Australia and are fearful of being returned to Sri Lanka. They said they had been denied legal advice, although the ABC reported that two of the 82 had subsequently had brief telephone conversations with lawyers.
Also last week, the federal government indicated that seven Burmese refugees, currently detained in Nauru after seeking asylum in Australia, will not be offered resettlement.