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Australia PM defends treatment of migrants held on boat



Australian Prime Minister Tony Abbott Saturday said his government's treatment of a boatload of 157 asylum-seekers who have been kept at sea for weeks would underline its resolve to stop people-smuggling.

Abbott, who came to power in September promising to "stop the boats" bringing asylum-seekers from countries such as Iran and Afghanistan, said Canberra would not dodge its international and legal obligations.

"What we do is always in accordance with our international obligations, it's always in accordance with our legal obligations, it's always in accordance with safety at sea," he told reporters in the capital.

But he said the boat carrying the group of 157 -- thought to be mostly minority ethnic Tamils from Sri Lanka -- now being brought to the Australian mainland would demonstrate Canberra's position.

"We are determined to respond to this one in ways which underline... our absolute implacable opposition to people-smuggling," he said.

"Because every boat that comes is exposing its passengers to potentially lethal risk. Every boat that comes is encouraging people smugglers and their customers to think that there is an illegal way to Australia. Well, there's not. "

Hundreds of asylum-seekers have lost their lives making their way to Australia on boats, often overcrowded and unsafe fishing vessels, in recent years after paying people-smugglers for their passage.

Australia's hardline approach involves sending asylum-seekers who come by boat to Pacific camps in Nauru and Papua New Guinea for resettlement, even if they are found to be genuine refugees, and turning back boats where it is safe to do so.

Since Abbott's election the number of boats arriving has dropped dramatically, and the boat carrying the 157 -- which left India last month -- will be the first in seven months to reach the Australian mainland.

The government said Friday that those on board, who were taken onto a Customs vessel on June 29, would be brought to Australia and held until Indian consular officials could confirm their nationalities and arrange where possible for them to return to India.

That development followed lawyers acting for about one-third of those on board taking their case to the High Court to argue that any transfer to Colombo would be illegal.

Abbott stressed that those who come to Australia illegally by boat will "never ever get permanent residency".

"So, if you want to come to this country, come the right way, not the wrong way, because if you come the wrong way you will never stay here," he said.

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