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By Morag MacKinnon
PERTH (Reuters) - Australia has sent 157 migrants, thought to be Sri Lankan asylum seekers, to a detention centre on the Pacific island of Nauru after they declined an offer to speak with Indian officials about their refugee claims, the government said on Saturday.
As part of its hardline immigration policy designed to deter migrants attempting to enter Australia by boat, the government had struck a deal with India for it to take back any of its nationals among the group who set sail from the Indian state of Pondicherry in June seeking asylum.
All 157, including 50 children, had refused to meet with the Indian consular officials this week and had been transferred to the island of Nauru where they will be processed and either resettled or returned to Sri Lanka, Immigration Minister Scott Morrison said in a statement.
“The Australian government created a rare opportunity with the government of India for many of the 157 people who were on that voyage from India, including up to 50 children, to go back to where they had been living in safety in India, where they have family and friends, rather than go to Nauru,” Morrison said.
Returning to India was now “no longer an option” for the migrants, Morrison said.
Australia uses offshore detention centres in Papua New Guinea and the tiny South Pacific Island nation of Nauru to process would-be refugees who arrive on boats. There are 1,127 people in detention on Papua New Guinea’s Manus Island and 1,146 people in the facilities on Nauru, according to government data.
The boat carrying the 157 migrants had been intercepted at sea by the Australian navy several weeks ago and the passengers, which the government calls “illegal maritime arrivals,” were detained at sea for a month before being brought ashore for questioning by Indian officials last week.
The government decided to bring the group to Australia after human rights lawyers began legal action in the country's High Court to stop them being sent to Sri Lanka and disputing the government's right to assess asylum claims while they were at sea.
The High Court decided on Monday, after the group's arrival in Australia, to drop that case, cancelling a hearing scheduled for next week, citing the detainees' changed circumstances.
Prime Minister Tony Abbott's conservative government has boasted of its success in deterring asylum seekers and says that the policies are needed to save lives at sea and to protect Australia's sovereignty.
(Editing by Matt Driskill)