The arrival of 157 asylum seekers held on a Customs ship for nearly a month to the Australian mainland will end the federal government’s six-month drought of boat arrivals.
But the government remains adamant it is not a sign its border protection policy is weakening.
The asylum seekers are reportedly set to travel from Cocos Island to Curtin detention centre in Western Australia within days.
They have been detained at sea in an undisclosed location since their vessel was intercepted 27km from Christmas Island on July 7.
Immigration Minister Scott Morrison on Friday would not confirm the transfer details but said the group will be moved to Australia to undergo identity checks from Indian consular officials.
India has agreed to take back any of its citizens and will consider taking Sri Lankan nationals who are Indian non-citizen residents.
Mr Morrison remained steadfast when questioned how the public should react to the development given his promise to stop the boats.
The government was resolved as ever to get the results it sought, he said.
Prime Minister Tony Abbott said this was the first boat that had come so close to Australia in the past six or seven months, proving the need for “permanent vigilance” to secure its borders.
He expected many of those detained would return home.
“Even if you get here, you won’t stay here,” he told reporters in Canberra.
The decision pre-empts the hearing of a High Court challenge against the government’s decision to hold the asylum seekers at sea, due the week after next.
Lawyers for the group say it’s still unclear what their clients’ legal rights will be once they reach the mainland.
They have yet to inform the asylum seekers of their options under Australian law and are waiting for the government to advise the High Court on the details of the transfer.
“This is a short-term reprieve, but welcome for the time being,” Human Rights Law Centre executive director Hugh de Kretser told AAP.
Labor and the Australian Greens accused Mr Morrison of losing control of his portfolio, saying the decision to bring the group to the mainland should have been made earlier.
“A few weeks ago, Scott Morrison refused to even confirm these 157 people existed,” Labor’s acting immigration spokeswoman Michelle Rowland told AAP.
“His border protection policy is in a complete shambles – his job is now being done by the High Court.”