Australia faces false imprisonment claims by Tamil asylum seekers

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Over 150 Sri Lankan Tamil asylum seekers, who were brought to mainland Australia after nearly a month Sunday, have claimed damages for false imprisonment in the high seas by the country’s authorities.

As many as 157 Tamil asylum seekers are being held at Curtin detention centre in the remote north-western Australia after being flown from Cocos Island.

The group of 157, including children, were detained for four weeks off Australia’s Christmas Island in the Indian Ocean early July.

All the asylum seekers, originally from Sri Lanka, fled the island country to India during the decade-long civil war.

They had been living in refugee camps in India since then.

During the high court hearing Monday, their lawyers contended that the Australian government cannot engage in conduct like that with impunity, The Melbourne Age reported.

The lawyers urged the court to continue hearing the case.

“They were detained for almost a month on the high seas pursuant to a power we say the government did not have,” the report quoted Ron Merkel as saying before the Justice Kenneth Hayne.

The bottom line was whether the government had the power to return people to places they were seeking protection against without having their claims for protection assessed, Merkel said.

Merkel also argued that the issue needed clarification because it was Australia’s obligations under international law.

Justice Hayne denied remitting the case to the Australian Federal Court, saying that it would be premature to make such a decision.

Australia’s Immigration Minister Scott Morrison Monday said there was no circumstance under which the 157 would be re-settled in Australia.

He said the identity of 157 Tamil asylum seekers will now be assessed by Indian consular officials here.

Meanwhile, the Indian government has only committed to accepting the asylum seekers who are Indian citizens.

Indian officials are expected to help determine the identities and residency of the asylum seekers.

Tamil people who live in Indian refugee camps are generally refugees, not residents, an Indian official said.

India has also agreed to consider the non-citizen Indian residents.

The judge gave the Australian government until Thursday to reply to an amended claim by lawyers for the asylum seekers.

The claim would give both parties a chance to apply for a directions hearing.

Hugh de Kretser, a Human Rights Law Centre official, said Morrison had admitted in court documents in which the asylum seekers are claiming refugee protection.

The lawyers said that it was impossible for them to ascertain the claims of asylum seekers, as they had little access to their clients. The government is still holding them as virtual prisoners, they said.