An Australian government charter plane carrying failed asylum seekers has left Christmas Island for Colombo, just days after their vessel was intercepted in the Indian Ocean.
The long-range jet took off from Christmas Island airport shortly after 3am local time (6am AEST) today and is on its way to Sri Lanka, The Australian has confirmed.
The secretive Australian Border Force operation was known only to a few within the government but The Australian has confirmed the group was ushered under guard to the island’s airport before dawn and the jet can be seen making its way using flight tracking software.
Home Affairs Minister Peter Dutton would not comment on the departure of the asylum seekers, but his spokeswoman said the government would send back any illegal arrivals.
“In-line with our longstanding and consistent policy, the Government does not comment on operational or intelligence matters,” she said.
“The Government’s policy is to intercept any vessel seeking to reach Australia illegally and to safely return those on board to their point of departure or country of origin.
“Under Operation Sovereign Borders, potential illegal immigrants have zero chance of getting to Australia illegally by boat.”
The Australian exclusively reported this morning that Australian offshore border patrol intercepted the group of Sri Lankan asylum-seekers, thought to number about 20, at the weekend in the Indian Ocean.
The latest arrival, the third in recent months, comes as Labor vows to resist moves to repeal contentious laws that have handed doctors greater control over refugee medical transfers.
Confirmation of the failed venture came as Papua New Guinean Prime Minister James Marape yesterday failed to secure a commitment from Scott Morrison for a firm timetable to get refugees and asylum-seekers off Manus Island.
While the government last night refused to comment on the ABF operation, it is poised to seize on the attempted arrival to bolster its medevac repeal bill, which is slated for debate this week.
Mr Morrison and Home Affairs Minister Peter Dutton argued before the May 18 election that the Labor-backed medevac laws could trigger the resumption of people-smuggling ventures.
The boat is the third to have arrived since the election and brings the total number of asylum-seekers boarding boats to Australia in the past eight weeks to about 80.
The government has said that the medevac laws will open the floodgates to the mainland and provide a propaganda tool for people-smugglers.
Deputy Labor leader Richard Marles yesterday rejected the government’s claim that the medevac laws needed to be repealed to prevent the launch of new people-smuggling ventures.
“We’re not going to support the repeal of the medevac legislation. At the end of the day, this is a pretty modest piece of legislation,” Mr Marles told the ABC. “It is about ensuring that doctors’ voices are heard when we’re determining where people on Manus and Nauru should be provided medical treatment.
“Now, around 40 people have come to Australia as a result of this. That’s in a context where the government, itself, has brought hundreds of people from Nauru to Australia in order to receive medical treatment over the last few years.
“So the idea that the medevac bill will somehow see the sky fall in when it comes to our border security, as the government is asserting, is completely ridiculous.”
Senate leader Mathias Cormann yesterday said the government would persist with repealing what he claimed was “bad legislation” pushed through parliament in February by an alliance of the crossbench, Greens and Labor.
“We are focused on the public interest, we are focused on the national interest and we are focused on making sure that we continue to protect the integrity of the nation’s borders,” Senator Cormann said.
“Our position is very clear. We took it to the last election. The Australian people voted for the agenda we took to the last election and that is what we will be delivering on.”
The government is hopeful of negotiating the support of Tasmanian upper-house independent Jacqui Lambie whose vote it will need in its bid to dismantle the controversial medical transfer laws.
A spokeswoman for Senator Lambie last night told The Australian that the Senator had yet to reach a decision on whether she would support repeal but has not ruled it out.
Labour is now preparing for a battle to protect the laws that it claimed were necessary on humanitarian grounds by allowing transfers of people based on a remote assessment by two doctors.
The laws were designed to make it easier for refugees or asylum-seekers on Manus Island and Nauru to be transferred to Australia for medical treatment.
The government plans to bring on a debate to repeal the Home Affairs Legislation Amendment (Miscellaneous Measures) Act 2019 (the medical transfer provisions) this week and have it pass the lower house.
It is also slated for debate in the Senate this week despite the bill having been referred to a Senate committee which is not due to report back until mid-October. Pauline Hanson has backed the repeal bill, as has South Australian senator and ex-Liberal Cory Bernardi. But with the two Centre Alliance senators opposed, the government will need Senator Lambie’s vote to succeed.
A spokeswoman for Centre Alliance MP Rebekha Sharkie — whose party holds two crucial Senate votes — said that their position to oppose a repeal would not change.
“We think it is a modest piece of legislation,” the spokeswoman said.
The expected return of the latest arrivals follows that of 20 Sri Lankans who set sail during the federal election campaign and were intercepted off the north coast of Australia after aerial patrols detected their boat. That group was brought ashore at Christmas Island then swiftly flown back to Colombo on a government charter jet on May 29.
During the sustained wave of asylum boat arrivals under Labor, Sri Lankan illegal migrants typically did not engage people-smugglers in Indonesia as the majority of asylum-seekers did.
Between 2008 and 2013, when more than 50,000 people reached Australia by boat seeking asylum, it often took just three days for asylum boats to reach Christmas Island.
However, many Sri Lankans who reached Christmas Island seeking asylum during that time had travelled by boat almost 3500km from their homeland.