The Australian Border Force has confirmed it sent 11 asylum seekers to Nauru in September, the first transfer to immigration detention on the Pacific nation in nine years.
The evidence to Senate estimates on Monday from the head of operation sovereign borders (OSB) confirms a report in Guardian Australia revealing the Albanese government sent asylum seekers to Nauru just months after the last people were removed from detention on the island.
Rear Adm Justin Jones, the head of OSB, told estimates the 11 people were transferred “from Australia to Nauru” on 7 September.
A whistleblower told Guardian Australia there is an enormous amount of “secrecy” surrounding the group of asylum seekers.
“How many more sad people are going to be stuck here for god knows how long,” they said. “I’ve been witness to so much heartache. It’s just so sad.”
At estimates, officials refused to say how many boats the 11 “unauthorised maritime arrivals” came on, where the boat or boats were intercepted, their country of origin, and whether there are any minors in the cohort.
The Greens senator Nick McKim accused the government of “outrageous secrecy” and “lack of transparency” for refusing to answer questions about “on-water matters”, in line with policies introduced by the Coalition.
Jones said these details were all “operationally sensitive” because they go “to the heart of relations with neighbouring countries across the region”.
Michael Thomas, the first assistant secretary of people smuggling policy in the home affairs department, said the cohort were in an “initial reception” phase in detention where they are identified and subject to health checks.
“At this stage providing more detail on the cohort may have an impact on relations with Nauru, as well as privacy and safety,” he said.
At one point McKim referred to Murray Watt, who was representing the home affairs minister, as “Mr [Scott] Morrison”, in reference to the former immigration minister who instituted the policy of refusing to comment on on-water matters. McKim withdrew the remark.
McKim complained that even under the Coalition officials answered questions about whether children had been detained. “That’s your narrative,” Watt replied.
McKim concurred, commenting the major parties’ policies were the “same rubbish, different bin” when it comes to offshore processing.
Asked why their boat wasn’t turned back, Jones replied: “If we are able to safely and lawfully turn or take back personnel we will do that. In this case we were not able to safely or lawfully conduct a take-back or turnback.”
Jones confirmed it would not be lawful to turn or take back a boat that had reached Australia’s migration zone.
Thomas said 13 asylum seekers on Nauru, including the 11 in the new cohort, were in detention, who he suggested could move to community accommodation after assessment by Nauru.
Jones said there had been seven ventures intercepted en route to Australia in 2022 and the vessels in all cases were rated not seaworthy.
He vowed that dangerous boat journeys “will not succeed”. “We will not allow the door to tragic loss of life and criminal exploitation to open again,” he said.
Jones said in one operation in 2022, marine crew spent 20 hours in “suboptimal sea conditions, transferring passengers and crew from their foundering vessel to safety”. “The risk of life and safety of all involved is real. This is why we work so hard to protect people from the false promises of criminal people smugglers,” he said.