Australia pledge on boat migrants
Published 08/07/2014 | 10:47
Australia's government has promised not to hand over a group of asylum seekers to the Sri Lankan government without three days' notice amid a court challenge and uproar from human rights groups.
The government's move came during a High Court hearing held one day after Australia's immigration minister confirmed another boatload of asylum seekers had been intercepted by Australian border patrol and transferred to Sri Lankan authorities at sea.
Refugee advocates have criticised the move, saying the asylum seekers will face persecution in Sri Lanka.
Lawyers representing some of the asylum seekers on board a second boat that has been intercepted went to the High Court to stop the 153 people on that vessel from also being returned to Sri Lanka.
They are currently on board an Australian customs vessel.
High Court Justice Susan Crennan, who issued a temporary injunction late last night halting any further transfers, adjourned the matter until a later date following today's hearing.
In the meantime, government lawyer Justin Gleeson said no asylum seekers would be transferred without 72 hours' written notice.
The issue erupted after Immigration Minister Scott Morrison confirmed that Australian border patrol had intercepted a boat carrying 41 Sri Lankans off the Cocos Islands in the Indian Ocean in late June and handed them over to the Sri Lankan government on Sunday.
Today's court hearing marked the first time the government acknowledged the second boat's existence and Mr Morrison still has yet to comment on where or when that boat was intercepted.
The hearing has no impact on the 41 people who have already been returned to Sri Lanka.
A Sri Lankan court today detained five alleged people smugglers who were among the 41 aboard the boat. Twenty-seven other adults were accused of illegally leaving the country and released on bail, while nine children who were aboard the boat were discharged.
Ruwan Rangana, 29, said he paid 150,000 rupees (£670) to smugglers for the seven-day journey to Australia. "I went there seeking a job," he said.
The lawyers representing some of the asylum seekers on the latest boat argue that their clients could face persecution in Sri Lanka, which emerged in 2009 from a civil war between the government and the now-defeated separatist Tamil Tigers. Refugee advocates say ethnic Tamils still face violence at the hands of the military.
The temporary reprieve was trumpeted as a win by one of the asylum seekers' lawyers, George Newhouse, who said "a group of vulnerable men, women and children will not be sent back to their persecutors in Sri Lanka".
Facing a surge of asylum seekers trying to reach Australian shores, the nation's conservative government implemented a tough policy of turning back their boats.
Prime Minister Tony Abbott said the government's policies were, in fact, an act of compassion.
"As long as the boats keep coming, we will keep having deaths at sea," he told Australia's Channel 7. "So the most decent, humane and compassionate thing you can do is to stop the boats."
Until now, the vessels have been returned to Indonesia, where asylum seekers from across the world pay people smugglers to ferry them to Australia aboard rickety boats prone to sinking.
Yesterday was the first time the government confirmed it had screened asylum seekers at sea and returned them directly to their home country.
The seemingly quick process by which Australia rejected the refugee claims is also facing scrutiny. Rather than bringing the asylum seekers to Australia's processing centres on the Pacific island nations of Nauru and Papua New Guinea, the claims were assessed on board an Australian vessel.
The United Nations refugee agency, UNHCR, issued a statement today saying it was "deeply concerned" by the decision to hand the asylum seekers back to Sri Lanka and about the fate of those aboard the second boat.
The agency questioned the at-sea assessment process, saying that without further details from the government it cannot say whether Australia is violating its international obligations to refugees.
"UNHCR's experience over the years with shipboard processing has generally not been positive," it said in a statement. "Such an environment would rarely afford an appropriate venue for a fair procedure."
Mr Gleeson said the asylum seekers were intercepted outside Australia's territorial waters and therefore not subject to any obligations under the nation's Migration Act, which sets guidelines on how asylum seekers are processed.