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September 21, 2017

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Australia sends asylum-seekers to Nauru after India offer gets refused

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 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, who have challenged their treatment by Australia in the High Court claiming false imprisonment, condemned the transfer of the men, women and children to Nauru.

"They have just spent a month in detention on the high seas locked in windowless rooms for at least 21 hours a day, not knowing where they were and living in constant fear," said Hugh de Kretser, executive director of the Human Rights Law Center.

"Now they have been secretly sent overnight to Nauru. We hold grave concerns for their mental health."

De Kretser said lawyers had been seeking urgent access to the 157 to talk to them about their case, but had only been able to speak to four in telephone interviews of one hour or less.

"The secret overnight transfer is a deliberate move to prevent legal scrutiny," he said.

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