The federal government faces mounting criticism for its handling of a group of Tamil asylum seekers, now in detention at Nauru.
It is the latest stop for the 157 people, including some 50 children, who are the subject of a High Court case and have been on a “wretched rollercoaster” ride, Labor’s immigration spokesman Richard Marles said.
Held at sea for three weeks on board a customs vessel, the asylum seekers were transferred last Sunday to Western Australia’s Curtin detention centre.
But after refusing to speak with officials in a move described as disappointing by Immigration Minister Scott Morrison, the group was flown to Nauru overnight Friday.
“This is Morrison’s merry-go-round,” Mr Marles told reporters on Saturday.
The group should have been taken straight to Christmas Island but instead the government spruiked an agreement struck with India, he said.
Under the deal Indian consular officials would interview the asylum seekers at Curtin with the country prepared to take back its residents.
But Mr Morrison said when they refused to speak with officials the deal was off.
The refusal to talk to officials “coincidentally” came after asylum seekers met with their lawyers.
“If these decisions were taken on the advice of lawyers, then not only have the passengers on this voyage been duped by people smugglers, it would seem they have also been let down by those who are supposed to be looking after their best interests,” Mr Morrison said, indicating they had “squandered” the chance of a positive outcome.
But lawyer acting for the Tamils, George Newhouse, denied he or his colleagues had advised the group not to meet with the Indian officials and knew nothing of the Friday night transfer to Nauru until he was alerted by media.
“We have not had a proper opportunity to inform our clients of their rights and their options because of the secrecy surrounding them,” he told AAP.
The group will now undergo processing at Nauru, a facility which has come under scrutiny from the Human Rights Commission and is unsuitable for children, Australian Greens senator Sarah Hanson-Young said.
“They are being used as political pawns in a desperate game for the minister to look tough,” the senator told reporters in Adelaide.
Amnesty International Australia condemned the transfer to Nauru and said the move violated the United Nations Refugee Convention by refusing to provide the opportunity to claim asylum and seek protection.
The Human Rights Law Centre described the three overnight flights ferrying the Tamils to Nauru as secretive.
“It highlights the Government’s deception, secrecy and willingness to undermine the rule of law in Australia,” a centre spokesman said.
But Mr Morrison and Prime Minister Tony Abbott insist the government’s move is safe and in line with Australia’s legal obligations.
Mr Abbott hit out at refugee advocacy groups, some members of the Labor party and the Greens.
“I’m sure they’re not doing it deliberately but unwittingly they are giving aid and comfort to the people smugglers … to a trade in death,” he said.
The kindest humanitarian thing to do is to work to stop the boats, the prime minister added.
If successful in their bid for asylum, members of the Tamil group will be settled at Nauru and if unsuccessful, they will be taken to Sri Lanka.