8 Jul 2014

Australia backs down, but Sri Lanka refugees trapped

More than 150 Sri Lankan asylum seekers will remain stuck at sea on a boat while an Australian court decides their fate – but the government says it will not send them back without 72 hours’ notice.

The 153 Sri Lankan asylum seekers on board include some children.

The Australian government wants to send them back to Sri Lanka, in line with its hard-line policy on immigrant boats and after already sending back a boat full of 41 other Sri Lankan asylum seekers on Sunday, attracting widespread international condemnation.

The 41 asylum seekers were handed straight to Sri Lankan police on their return to the country, and appeared in court in the port city of Galle on Tuesday. Sri Lankan police said any found guilty of attempting to lead the country illegally would face “rigorous imprisonment”, raising fears of human rights abuses. Five suspects were detained ahead of another hearing on 14 July.

Our goal for today was to make sure the 153 asylum seekers are safe. Lawyer George Newhouse

But the Australian high court is now considering a legal challenge to the government’s actions for the 153 who are still stuck at sea. The case has been adjourned until Friday, but in the short term human rights lawyers hailed a concession from the government which promised to give the court 72 hours’ written notice before sending the Sri Lankans back.

“Our goal for today was to make sure the 153 asylum seekers are safe, and for now we have achieved this temporarily,” said lawyer George Newhouse, who brought the legal challenge.

The lawyers are battling over whether Australian law allows the government to hold asylum seekers at sea, as well as whether Australian law even applies at all if the asylum seekers were intercepted outside territorial waters.

The long-term implications of the case could prove to be a direct challenge to the Australian government’s strict immigration policy, “Operation Sovereign Borders”, one of its election-winning mantras last year.

Human rights lawyers will negotiate with the government to speak directly with the asylum seekers, who are being held on the high seas on an Australian naval vessel, saying they have so far spoken only with family members.

The three days’ notice the Australian government has committed to only counts for removing the asylum seekers to Sri Lanka; they can still be held on the boat, or transferred to offshore holding centres on Australia’s Christmas Island or the South Pacific nations of Nauru and Papua New Guinea.

“(Prime Minister) Tony Abbott and (Immigration Minister) Scott Morrison’s nasty secret is out,” said opposition Greens lawmaker Sarah Hanson-Young. “The ugly truth is that the government has been keeping dozens of children detained out on the high seas.”

Western countries have long raised concerns with Sri Lanka over accusations of human rights violations on both sides during the final phase of the war against Tamil separatists that ended in 2009.

Read more on Sri Lanka from Channel 4 News here

Sri Lanka says many asylum seekers are economic migrants, but rights groups say Tamils seek asylum to prevent torture, rape and other violence at the hands of the military. Many of the asylum seekers sent back and trapped on the boat are believed to be Tamil.

The UN Refugee Agency said on Tuesday it was “deeply concerned” about the return of the 41 asylum seekers and the fate of the other 153.

It is particularly worried about Australia’s “enhanced screening” process, used to assess asylum seekers on the first boat, reportedly involving asking them just four questions over a phone link to Australia.

Melissa Fleming, spokesperson for the UN refugee agency told Channel 4 News: “UNHCR remains highly worried about the fate of a further 153 asylum seekers of Sri Lankan origin…

“UNHCR continues to intercede with the Australian government that individuals intercepted at sea, seeking international protection, should have access to a proper asylum process. Screening at sea conditions may not be the best practice, considering the stress and trauma asylum seekers have to go through while accessing safe territories.”