India accepts Australia’s request to probe 157 boat refugees

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India gave Australia a bit of a breather by agreeing to investigate whether some of the 157 boat refugees confined to their boat on Christmas Island are Sri Lankan Tamil refugees from a camp in Puducherry.

Australia has asked the Indian government to provide consular services to the refugees to see if India can take them back. The refugees are held as prisoners in a boat and only let out during meal time.

Scott Morrison, Australia’s embattled immigration minister on his first visit to India, told Indian foreign minister Sushma Swaraj and home minister Rajnath Singh that according to Australian investigations, the controversial boat with 157 asylum seekers set out from India.

This is the first high level visit from Australia after the Modi government took office. The case of the 157 Tamil refugees has created a major storm in Australia. The Australian government does not want them in their country. It has argued that since the Tamils were intercepted outside Australian territorial waters, Canberra had the right to return them to the country they came from. According to international law, Australia is obliged not to send back refugees to the country they left. Faced with a growing number of refugees from Afghanistan, Sri Lanka and even Indonesia who float their way to Australia, the Australian navy now regularly scouts for boat people outside Australia territorial waters. Australian media reports said they had recently sent back 41 boat refugees to Sri Lanka.

The present case involves Lankan Tamils who, Australia says, came from south India in June. Morrison told a radio programme, “The report is that the vessel did come from India, we’ve got a very good understanding of where this vessel has come from and we’ve been having some dialogue with the Indian government to work through these issues.” The case is now pending in the high court, which will decide whether the Australian government has the right to send the boats back. This is part of the Australian government’s policy, called ‘Operation Sovereign Borders’, by which they send back boatloads of refugees. This was touted as a big success by the Tony Abbott government earlier this year.

Indian government sources said it was only very recently that Australia had reached out to India on this issue. India wrestles with its own illegal immigration problem with Bangladesh. It is unclear how this case will play out, Times of India reports.