7 Jul 2014

Australian government blocked over Tamil asylum seekers

Australia’s high court stops the mid-ocean transfer of 153 Tamil asylum seekers to the Sri Lankan navy, days after 41 others were handed straight to the Sri Lankan police on their return.

Photo: Australian Prime Minister Tony Abbott with Sri Lankan President Mahinda Rajapaksa

The Australian high court gained an interim injunction until an emergency court hearing on Tuesday, to prevent a ship of 153 Tamil asylum seekers from being handed over to the Sri Lankan navy.

The injunction was granted after the Australian government confirmed that a separate boat with 41 asylum seekers was not allowed to land before being transferred straight back to Sri Lankan authorities last week.

Sri Lankan police later said that all 41, including four Tamils, faced a two year term of “rigorous imprisonment” if they are found guilty of leaving the country “illegally”.

‘Many will be tortured again and even killed’

Human Rights groups have raised concerns that Tamil asylum seekers face punishment, rape and torture if they are sent back to the Sri Lankan authorities. In the last three months alone, three Tamil asylum seekers on temporary visas in Australia have set themselves on fire as they were faced with being returned to Sri Lanka. Two later died.

A relative of a three-year-old girl aboard the boat with 153 asylum seekers has appealed to Australian Immigration Minister Scott Morrison for more information: in keeping with the government’s “Operation Sovereign Borders” policy, it is not commenting on this boat or the people on board.

“I ask him to be kind to these people. They are all very frightened,” the relative said. “They cannot be sent back to Sri Lanka. Many of them will be tortured again and even killed.”

The high court injunction followed a statement by the Australian Immigration Minister Scott Morrison which confirmed the mid-ocean transfer of 41 asylum seekers off the Port of Batticaloa.

He called the voyage by asylum seekers a “maritime people smuggling venture” and insisted that the 41 Sri Lankans were only returned after an “enhanced screening process”. He added that the government would continue to reject the appeals of those who want a change of policy: “Their advocacy, though well intentioned, is naively doing the bidding of people smugglers who have been responsible for almost 1200 deaths at sea.”

Asylum seekers ‘asked four basic questions’

But human rights and legal experts have cast doubt on the legality of the government’s current questioning process, which reportedly involves asking four basic questions via a teleconference: the asylum seeker’s name, their country of origin, where they had come from and why they had left.

A statement signed by 53 legal experts spread across 17 universities condemned the government’s policy, which it said risked violation of international law. “We are profoundly concerned by reports that asylum seekers have been subjected to rapid and inadequate screening interviews, and returned to Sri Lanka,” the statement read.

“This raises a real risk of refoulement, in breach of Australia’s obligations under international and human rights law.”

The UNHCR also said it had “profound concern” over reports about the way asylum seekers were being dealt with in Australia, and added: “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.”

Last year, the United Nation’s committee against torture (CAT) criticised UK policy after finding that some Tamils who were sent back to Sri Lanka when their asylum claims were unsuccessful “have been victims of torture and ill-treatment following their forced or voluntary removal from the State party”. Just last week, Channel 4 News reported that a Tamil woman who had been repeatedly raped by Sri Lankan soldiers faced deportation back to Sri Lanka.

Australia’s Prime Minister Tony Abbott was elected partly on the strength of his pledge to come down hard on immigration. He has also forged links with Sri Lankan President Mahinda Rajapaksa, despite the fact that Sri Lanka faces accusations of human rights violations, and recently gifted two Bay-class petrol boats to the country, worth $2m.

The United Nations is currently investigating alleged war crimes in Sri Lanka during the final phase of the war against Tamil separatists, which ended in 2009.