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SYDNEY (Reuters) - Australia will transfer 157 Tamil asylum seekers it has been holding at sea for nearly a month to a mainland detention centre, the immigration minister said on Friday, in an apparent setback for the government's policies.
Australia has provided little information about the asylum seekers, detained by customs after setting sail from India. Their case was due to be heard by the High Court next month.
Immigration Minister Scott Morrison struck a combative tone, refusing to answer questions about the condition of the asylum seekers or the potential impact the move could have on policy.
He insisted, however, that the government was not backing down from a regime that he says prevented the thousands of boat arrivals per month the country experienced during much of 2013 and the resultant spike in deaths at sea.
"They will not be resettled in Australia. That is the policy of the Australian government and there is no change to our policy on any front and more importantly there is no change to our resolve," he said.
Australia uses offshore detention centres in Papua New Guinea and the tiny South Pacific island nation of Nauru to process would-be refugees trying to reach the country, often in unsafe boats after paying people smugglers in Indonesia.
A government source who spoke under the condition of anonymity because he was not authorised to speak on the matter said that this group of asylum seekers would be transferred to the remote Curtin Detention Centre in outback Western Australia.
Under a tough policy brought in by former Prime Minister Kevin Rudd of the Labor Party, no one attempting to arrive in Australia by boat to claim asylum can ever be settled in the country, regardless of the final status they get.
Senator Sarah Hanson-Young of the opposition Greens Party blasted Morrison over the announcement, dismissed the move in a statement as "illegal" and a "debacle".
"The Immigration Minister is a spectacular failure by his own measure, as well as the measure of the international community and decent, caring Australians," she said.
Morrison said a deal had been reached with India during a visit there this week to grant consular access detention centre with the goal of identifying Indian nationals who could then be returned to their home country.
"The Minister for Home Affairs has confirmed to the Australian government that in addition to India's standing policy of receiving returns of any Indian citizens, he indicated to me at our meeting that they will also consider the return of those who may be Sri Lankan nationals," Morrison said.
In New Delhi, India's interior ministry denied any offer had been made to take in Sri Lankan nationals. "This is not true at all. We have only asked for consular access to those who might be Indians. We have not offered to take Sri Lankan nationals," said Kuldeep Singh Dhatwalia, spokesman at the ministry of home affairs.
Abbott's government has boasted of its success in deterring asylum seekers from taking the journey, issuing updates on how long it has been since the last boat arrival in Australia.
About 16,000 asylum seekers came on 220 boats to Australia in the first seven months of last year, but the government says there have been no illegal boat arrivals since December 2013.
But the policies have been facing growing international scrutiny from rights groups, The New York Times editorial board and the United Nations, as well as legal challenges in Australia's courts.
Another 41 Sri Lankan asylum seekers picked up from a separate boat were handed to Sri Lanka in a secret operation last month, igniting fresh criticism from rights groups.
That led the U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees to express "profound concern" about the policy, which it said might place Australia in violation of international laws barring the return of a person to a country where he or she had a well-founded fear of persecution.
It was not immediately clear if their case would still proceed to the High Court for a hearing scheduled for next week.
Reporting by Matt Siegel, Additional reporting by Nita Bhalla in NEW DELHI; Editing by Clarence Fernandez and Ron Popeski