SYDNEY—Australia’s military intercepted a Sri Lankan boat carrying 13 migrants last month, Minister for Home Affairs Peter Dutton said on Sept. 2, as Canberra sought to defend the relocation of a Tamil family to a remote detention center.
Dutton said the vessel—intercepted off the Cocos Islands, a remote Australian territory in the Indian Ocean—was the 13th boat from Sri Lanka attempting to travel to Australia to seek asylum in the past 18 months.
“It is the reason Sri Lanka was the first country I visited after the election, to make sure we can keep these boats stopped,” Dutton told the Courier-Mail newspaper. Australia’s centre-right government was re-elected in May.
Under Canberra’s Operation Sovereign Borders policies, migrants intercepted at sea while trying to reach Australia are returned to the boat’s country of origin unless they classify as refugees under the UN definition.
Of the Tamil family, Dutton wrote in an op-ed, “The mother and father arrived illegally by boat in 2012 and 2013 respectively. They were part of the 50,000 people who arrived on 800 boats under Mr. Rudd and Ms. Gillard.
“Labor initially put them into detention and they were told all those years ago that, on the details they provided, they were not refugees under the UN definition so they would have to go home. They were told that they would never settle permanently in Australia, just like many others who arrived by boat. They never accepted that decision.”
Migrants who reach Australia are sent to Australian-run offshore processing centres in Papua New Guinea and the South Pacific island of Nauru, where their cases are considered for asylum. Some illegal immigrants who don’t meet the UN criteria voluntarily return to their country of origin while others appeal their case in Australia’s courts at the tax payers’ expense.
Critics accuse the Australian government of seeking to sway public opinion following the relocation of a Tamil asylum-seeker family to Christmas Island on Saturday.
“The government would not talk about it but when it is convenient, you get this,” Joel Fitzgibbon, an opposition Labor lawmaker, told Channel 9 television.
Thousands of people across Australia protested at the weekend against the decision but Prime Minister Scott Morrison said on Monday allowing the Tamil family to stay would encourage further attempts by migrants who are not true asylum seekers.
A detention center on Christmas Island—some 1,550 km (960 miles) northwest of the mainland—was reopened earlier this year after it lay idle for 10 years.
The Tamil couple had two daughters, now aged 4 and 2, after marrying and settling in a small town in Australia’s northeast.
“They have explained their circumstance to every decision maker and Judge and every one of them has rejected their claim for protection,” Dutton wrote. “That is that they are not refugees.”
“The civil war in Sri Lanka is now over and Tamils from around the world have returned to their country and have been accepted back by a democratically elected inclusive government. It is true though that Sri Lanka still doesn’t have the industry, welfare system or job opportunities we enjoy in Australia.
“It’s not that this family or those in the 68 million figure are unworthy or not sincere in their desire to live in Australia,” Minister Dutton continued. “The reality is our government, with the support of the majority of Australians, has taken tough decisions over a number of years now to keep our borders secure and people off boats.
“At the same time we have brought refugees in who, in many cases faced imminent death or persecution, and their cases are much more compelling than those who are not refugees but simply want a stronger financial future for their families.”
Despite the protests, Dutton said the family will not be allowed to stay after their applications for asylum were refused.
Epoch Times staff contributed to this report.