Headed for Australia: The Tamil asylum seekers get on board an airplane at Cocos Island.

Tamil asylum seekers board an aeroplane on Cocos Island bound for the Australian mainland. Photo: AAP

After weeks at sea, a group of 18 asylum seekers have arrived at the remote Curtin Immigration Detention Centre, in north-west Western Australia.

The group, who were part of 157 asylum seekers detained at sea for weeks on the Customs ship Ocean Protector, arrived at the detention centre about 7pm on Sunday, a Curtin spokesman said.

Curtin Immigration Detention Centre, where the 157 Tamil asylum seekers are expected to be brought overnight Sunday.

Curtin Immigration Detention Centre, where the first of 157 Tamil asylum seekers arrived on Sunday.

More asylum seekers are expected to arrive at Curtin today after the group of 157 landed yesterday on the Cocos Islands at the weekend. They were transferred to shore in small boats and taken to the quarantine centre. The customs vessel had been moored offshore. 

The Refugee Action Coalition said the asylum seekers were seen disembarking at 2pm on Sunday. They were headed to the island's airport from where they were due to be flown to Curtin detention centre.

"There's no schedule, but given the lack of facilities on Cocos Islands, they will probably try and get them on a plane soon – not everybody by today, but most," said spokesman Ian Rintoul, of the Refugee Action Coalition.

Immigration Minister Scott Morrison confirmed on Monday morning that the asylum seekers had reached Curtin detention centre after the federal government initially refused to comment on the Tamils' movements.

He defended the government's push to return the asylum seekers to India telling ABC radio that if people could not be taken to India ''what is next? New Zealand?''

Mr Morrison said the asylum seekers who came by boat were ''economic migrants'' because they came from ''safe'' India. He also refused to comment on what the government would do should India refuse to take some asylum seekers back.

"The suggestion that people who have left a safe country are somehow fleeing persecution, I think, is absurd," he said. 

The group of 157, including children, had been detained at sea since their boat was intercepted 27 kilometres from Christmas Island on July 7.

After arriving at Curtin, they will undergo identity checks by Indian consular officials.

Under a deal brokered by the Department of Immigration, India has agreed to take back its nationals and will consider taking Sri Lankan nationals who are Indian residents.

The Australian Greens say the group has a legal right to apply for asylum in Australia.

Greens senator Sarah Hanson-Young will travel to Curtin this week to enquire about the welfare of the children involved and to brief the asylum seekers on their rights.

"Just because [Prime Minister] Tony Abbott wants to trade in their lives, doesn't make it legal," she told reporters in Adelaide on Sunday.

Mr Abbott has said the handling of the asylum seekers is not illegal and in accordance with Australia's international obligations.

However he stressed they could never call Australia home because they did not come the "right way".

The Prime Minister on Sunday declined to answer questions on the movement of the asylum seekers to the mainland.

The decision to bring the group to land pre-empts a High Court challenge against their detention at sea.

For the 29 days the asylum seekers were held at sea, they were reportedly kept locked in small, windowless rooms for 21 hours a day, sleeping in bunks stacked four high. They had three hours outside daily. Family members were split from each other, and they had no access to translators.

The asylum seekers were not told they were being transferred to Australia until after it was announced by Immigration Minister Scott Morrison.

The ongoing High Court challenge to their at-sea detention was due to return to the court on August 5.

The executive director of the Refugee and Immigration Legal Centre, David Manne, was approached at the weekend to represent the 157 asylum seekers.

“What must happen is that they are afforded the ordinary protections of Australian law to make any claim they have for protection,” he said.

Mr Manne would not rule out returning to the High Court to protect the asylum seekers' rights, saying any claims must be “fairly and properly assessed under Australian law”.

And he said any move to return the asylum seekers to India against their will would be resisted.

“It’s a fundamental principle of refugee law that no one, no person, should be made to deal with the authority of the country from which they have fled,” Mr Manne said.

Bala Vigneswaran of the Australian Tamil Congress said the asylum seekers had rights. “They must not be handed over to the authorities of another country if they do not agree to it,” he said.

Mr Morrison travelled to New Delhi last week to ask the Indian government to accept the return of the asylum seekers. The Indian government insisted they be given access to asylum seekers on land, not at sea, and promised only to accept the return of Indian citizens. India will consider, but has not guaranteed, to repatriate non-citizen Indian residents.

Most of the 157 Tamils are understood to be Sri Lankan citizens who fled the country during, and in the aftermath of, the country’s brutal civil war. They have been living in refugee camps in southern India since, some for more than a decade.

with AAP

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