Australian Prime Minister, Tony Abbot

Australian Prime Minister, Tony Abbot

Australian Prime Minister, Tony Abbot

A group of 157 asylum-seekers in custody on the high seas for weeks will be taken to Australia and held until consular officials confirm their nationalities, ending a long stand-off, authorities said Friday.

The development follows lawyers acting for about one-third of those on board — thought to be mostly minority ethnic Tamils from Sri Lanka — taking their case to the High Court.

They argued that any transfer to Colombo would be illegal, with concerns about the way they were screened.

The boat left India last month and Australia said it had been “disabled” when it was intercepted outside Canberra’s migration zone.

The asylum-seekers, including children, have since been held in limbo on board an Australian customs ship while their legal status is determined.

Immigration Minister Scott Morrison said they would be taken to the mainland — the first boatpeople to arrive in Australia in seven months — where Indian consular officials would determine their identities.

“I have been pleased to consent to the passengers being returned to Australia for the purpose of allowing Indian officials to determine identities and arrange where possible for the return of any persons to India,” he said.

“It is our intention those who can be returned should and must be returned,” he added, saying India had agreed to take back any of its citizens and would also consider taking Sri Lankan nationals who were Indian residents.

He ruled out any of them being resettled in Australia, in line with Canberra’s hardline immigration policies, while Prime Minister Tony Abbott added: “I would certainly expect a very large number of people on that boat to go back to their country of origin.”

Any boatpeople who arrived in Australia after July 19, 2013 cannot be resettled in the country, regardless of whether they are genuine refugees. They are instead sent to detention facilities or resettled on islands in the Pacific.

Asked what would happen to those on the boat who were neither Indian nationals nor residents, Morrison replied: “These are matters to be determined.”

Lawyers have been seeking a court order that prevents those on board being sent to either Sri Lanka, Nauru, or Papua New Guinea.

International law expert Don Rothwell, from the Australian National University, said their legal status was uncertain.

“Bringing them to the mainland — if that is ultimately their destination — would bring them within the migration zone and it would activate for them a capacity to make asylum claims,” he told ABC radio.

“So we are in quite a fluid situation in terms of the ability of these people to actually make asylum claims under Australian law.”

Amnesty International said that holding them at sea for so long “has achieved nothing”.

“All it has done is prolong and exacerbate the suffering of more than 150 asylum-seekers and their families,” said Graeme McGregor, Amnesty’s refugee campaign coordinator.

Reports said those on board had been kept behind locked doors, allowed out for only three hours each day, although Morrison insisted they had been in “excellent care”.

“It is completely unacceptable they will not have their claims for asylum assessed and all long term residents of India will be returned to the country, after their identities are confirmed by Indian officials,” added McGregor.

“This doesn’t remove the risk of the asylum-seekers being returned to Sri Lanka, where they may face a risk of persecution or even death.”

He said all asylum-seekers “must have the opportunity to have a full, fair and rigorous refugee status assessment”.