Australia will transfer 157 Tamil asylum seekers it has been holding at sea for nearly a month to a mainland detention centre, a government source told Reuters on Friday, in a setback for Prime Minister Tony Abbott's tough refugee policies.
Australia has provided little information about the fate of the asylum seekers, detained by Australian customs after setting sail from India, and their case was due to be heard by the high court next month.
Australia uses offshore detention centres in Papua New Guinea and the tiny South Pacific island nation of Nauru to process would-be refugees trying to reach the country, often in unsafe boats after paying people smugglers in Indonesia.
Under the government's tough policy no one attempting to arrive in Australia by boat to claim asylum can ever be settled in the country, regardless of the final status they get.
Abbott's government has boasted of its success in deterring asylum seekers from taking the journey, frequently issuing updates on how long it has been since the last successful boat arrival in Australia.
But the hardline asylum seeker policies have been facing growing international scrutiny, as well as legal challenges in Australia's courts.
Another 41 Sri Lankan asylum seekers picked up from a separate boat were handed over by Australia to Sri Lanka in a secret operation last month, igniting fresh criticism from rights groups.
News that the refugees were being transferred to the remote Curtin Detention Centre in the West Australian outback was first reported by the Guardian Australia website.
Immigration minister Scott Morrison has called a news conference for Friday afternoon to discuss the issue.