Australia's government confirmed Monday that it had handed over a boatload of asylum seekers to Sri Lankan authorities in a transfer at sea, drawing outrage from human-rights groups who fear those on board could be persecuted in their home country.
The 41 Sri Lankans were intercepted by Australia's border patrol off the Cocos Islands in the Indian Ocean in late June, Immigration Minister Scott Morrison said in a statement. On Sunday, they were handed over to the Sri Lankan government after their refugee claims were assessed at sea and rejected.
For days, Morrison refused to comment on reports that Australian officials had intercepted two boats carrying around 200 Sri Lankan asylum seekers and handed them over to Sri Lankan authorities. On Monday, the minister again declined to say whether a second boat exists, and his spokesman did not respond to requests seeking clarification.
Late Monday night, Australia's High Court issued an interim injunction blocking the government from transferring asylum seekers from the second boat to Sri Lankan authorities. The injunction will remain in place until a hearing is held on Tuesday. The matter was brought before the court by a group of lawyers who argue the asylum seekers' return to Sri Lanka is illegal.
In a bid to stem a rising tide of asylum seekers trying to reach Australian shores, the nation's conservative government implemented a tough policy of turning back their boats. Until now, the vessels have been returned to Indonesia, where asylum seekers from Afghanistan, Iran, Sri Lanka and other countries pay people smugglers to ferry them to Australia aboard rickety boats.
This marks the first time Prime Minister Tony Abbott's government has confirmed it had screened asylum seekers at sea and returned them directly to their home country. Among the asylum seekers leaving Sri Lanka are ethnic Tamils who survived a lengthy civil war between government troops and the now-defeated separatist Tamil Tiger rebels. Refugee advocates say Tamils still face violence by the military.
"Some of these people will be handed straight back to danger," said Sarah Hanson-Young, immigration spokeswoman for the minor Greens party.
Morrison said four of the asylum seekers on board were Tamils, and said none was at risk of persecution.
"All were screened in terms of any potential protection obligation and none were found to be owed that protection," Morrison told Macquarie Radio.
A Sri Lankan navy spokesman confirmed the asylum seekers had arrived in the southern port city of Galle, but gave no details on what would happen to them. Generally, asylum seekers in Sri Lanka are handed over to police for questioning; they face fines, but jail terms are likely only for those with proven links to militant groups or the smuggling trade.
The initial reports of a handover last week prompted the United Nations refugee agency, UNHCR, to issue a statement expressing "profound concern" that Australia was processing asylum seekers at sea rather than bringing them ashore to assess their claims.
"UNHCR considers that individuals who seek asylum must be properly and individually screened for protection needs," the agency said in a statement, adding that "international law prescribes that no individual can be returned involuntarily to a country in which he or she has a well-founded fear of persecution."
Ming Yu, spokeswoman for Amnesty International, said the cursory processing of complex refugee claims means they may not be properly investigated. That could leave Australia in violation of its international obligation of non-refoulement, which forbids victims of persecution from being forced back to a place where their life or freedom is under threat.
"We know [Sri Lanka] is a country where persecution is still occurring, where torture by police is still occurring," Yu said. "So we're trying to raise the attention to the Australian government of where your actions of returning people without properly assessing their claim to asylum that you're really risking refoulement."
Morrison said Australia had complied with its legal obligations.
Just one of the 41 people on board was assessed as possibly having a case for asylum, and was given the option of being transferred to Australia's detention camps in the South Pacific island nations of Nauru or Papua New Guinea for further processing, Morrison said.
The asylum seeker opted instead to return to Sri Lanka.