In July 2014, in Australian waters close to Indonesia, the Australian Navy intercepted a boatload of 157 people from Sri Lanka. They had hoped to gain entry to Australia as refugees but were told that their only prospects were to have their status processed on the islands of Nauru or Manus, both on the Equator northeast of New Guinea, and, if accepted as genuine refugees, to be settled there—not in Australia. Otherwise, they could return to Sri Lanka, which most of them subsequently chose to do.

The plight of boat people had been the most contentious issue in Australian politics since the late 1990s. In 2001, the conservative government of John Howard had halted the initial wave of would-be refugees by defying Federal Court injunctions gained by Australian human rights lawyers and defying the weight of opinion among the broader legal,...


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