Australia: High Court intervention on 'dangerous' Sri Lanka asylum boat handovers

Asylum seekers stranded on ferry
© APGraphicsBank

Amnesty International today expressed relief that Australian High Court deliberations have put the transfer of asylum seekers to Sri Lanka's Navy in doubt. One boat full of Sri Lankan asylum seekers was returned to the Sri Lankan authorities earlier this week, plans to hand over asylum seekers from a second boat have been stalled by this intervention.

Yesterday, in an unprecedented move, the Australian Government confirmed it had subjected 41 Sri Lankan asylum seekers to what it calls an ‘enhanced screening process’ via video link. The asylum seekers intercepted at sea were apparently returned to the Sri Lankan authorities, after the on-water screening process. Amnesty condemned the transfer.

In the latest development an application brought on behalf of a second boat carrying 153 Sri Lankan asylum seekers intercepted by the Australian Navy on their way from India, is to be heard by the High Court later this week. The Australian government has said it will not hand over the asylum seekers without giving 72 hours’ notice to the High Court.

Amnesty International Australia’s Refugee Spokesperson, Graeme McGregor, said:

“The decision that the whole High Court will hear the challenge reflects the gravity of the Australian Government’s deeply concerning proposal to return asylum seekers to a country where their lives may be at serious risk.

“The Government’s temporary commitment that they will not transfer the asylum seekers to Sri Lanka without giving 72 hours’ notice is a small step in the right direction, but the asylum seekers remain indefinitely held at sea, setting a dangerous precedent.

“Throughout this process, the Government has continually failed to provide even basic answers to the questions about the asylum seekers’ whereabouts and their safety.

“It’s taken a High Court challenge for the Government to even confirm the boat exists.

“There still remain many unanswered questions about the missing asylum seekers’ whereabouts.

“Asking asylum seekers only four questions each before handing them back to Sri Lankan authorities runs an extremely high risk of returning genuine refugees to torture, persecution or death.

“If the Australian government wants to address the loss of asylum seekers’ lives, it should not be returning them to a country where their lives may be in grave danger.

“Australia stands alone in failing to recognise the ongoing human rights violations taking place in Sri Lanka.”

All asylum seekers arriving by boat should be processed in Australia under a prompt, rigorous and fair refugee status determination system. Amnesty calls on the Australian Government to immediately cease any policy to turn back asylum seeker boats.

Amnesty International has long documented the human rights abuses widely committed by the Sri Lankan authorities against those who publicly oppose it.

Despite the end of the 2009 conflict, the Sri Lankan Government has systematically and violently cracked down on its critics.

Sri Lankan asylum seekers have faced torture upon return to Sri Lanka from countries such as the UK. Torture has been reported in rehabilitation camps, by police and military personnel in the context of counter-insurgency operations against the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) and also in the context of civil policing. All ethnic groups in Sri Lanka continue to face risks of torture in police custody, including sexual violence, where it is pervasive.

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