Immigration Minister Chris Bowen says the first return of asylum seekers back to their home country after refusing to be transferred to Nauru is an important step in deterring people smuggling.


A group of 18 Sri Lankan men left Christmas Island for Colombo on Saturday after asking to be sent home rather than going to the Pacific island for the processing of their asylum seeker claims.

“It is a sign of people weighing up their options and they have been misled by people smugglers,” Mr Bowen told reporters in Sydney.

“The first transfer of 18 people is a very significant step.”

Announcing the return of the men, Mr Bowen also said people arriving by boat in future would be barred from sponsoring family under changes to be made to the special humanitarian program.

Opposition immigration spokesman Scott Morrison said he’d revealed on Tuesday that the Sri Lankan group had decided to return home.

He said Mr Bowen was “playing catch-up, confirming the information revealed by the coalition earlier in the week”.

The plane carrying the men left Christmas Island at 0815 (1115 AEST) on Saturday bound for the Sri Lankan capital.

Mr Bowen said 16 of the 18 men arrived in Australia after August 13, when the government announced its new border protection policies.

“They have asked not be transferred to Nauru, but instead to be returned to their homeland of Sri Lanka,” Mr Bowen said.

The first group to be sent for offshore processing were transferred from Christmas Island to Nauru on September 14.

The government has reopened the processing centre at Nauru and is soon to reopen Papua New Guinea’s Manus Island to stem boat arrivals.

Mr Bowen said the “no special concessions” provisions under the humanitarian program, as recommended by the Houston independent panel, would ensure family reunions occurred only through the normal channels.

The government last month received the Houston report, which recommended 22 measures on asylum-seeker policy.

“Up until now it had been possible for people who arrive in Australia by boat to sponsor family members and not to show that the other requirements under the special humanitarian program were met,” Mr Bowen said.

While shutting down the provision, Mr Bowen said an extra 4000 people would be accepted under the family reunion program.

Australian Greens immigration spokeswoman Sarah Hanson-Young said keeping families separate was not the solution to the asylum seeker problem.

“Stopping refugees from being reunited with their families in Australia is the latest raft of concerning and inhumane measures implemented by the Gillard government,” Senator Hanson-Young said in a statement.

Mr Bowen said people smugglers, in offering passage to Australia, would keep misleading clients that a visa would be available on their arrival.

“What this transfer does, and together with the transfer to Nauru over the last week, is show that if you come to Australia by boat, you risk your life and you throw your money away,” he said.

Australian authorities earlier on Saturday reported a boat carrying 17 suspected asylum seekers was intercepted west of Christmas Island the previous day.

It was the 144th boat intercepted in Australian waters this year.

Opposition Leader Tony Abbott, speaking to reporters in Brisbane, said the arrival again showed the government had lost control of Australia’s borders.