( July 5, 2014, London, Sri Lanka Guardian)The UNHCR has expressed “profound concern” that two boats carrying Tamil asylum seekers may have been sent back to Sri Lanka by the Australian government, and directly raised the possibility that Australia has broken international law.
“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. When boats presumed to be carrying asylum seekers are intercepted, UNHCR’s position is that requests for international protection should be considered within the territory of the intercepting state, consistent with fundamental refugee protection principles.”
The UNHCR’s regional office in Canberra said it had received no official confirmation from the government that the two boats were being turned back. The Australian prime minister, Tony Abbott, and the immigration minister, Scott Morrison, have refused to confirm either boat’s existence under a tight veil of secrecy imposed under Australia’s hardline military-led border regime. Morrison repeatedly refused to comment on the boats and said he had not been contacted by the UN over the incident – a statement that is now at odds with the contents of the UNHCR release.
Asylum seekers on at least one of the boats were subjected to a rapid process on board an Australian customs vessel, in which their claims for asylum were screened in short interviews by teleconference. Those “screened out” have no right to launch a claim for protection; anyone “screened in” faces transfer to an offshore detention centre and would have no legal right to settle in Australia. In 2012 the Australian government was told that screening asylum seekers’ claims on board Australian vessels was not lawful.
Numerous reports since Friday documenting the existence of both boats – one of which departed from Tamil Nadu, southern India – have suggested that those on board are being transported to Sri Lanka with the co-operation of the Sri Lankan navy, an action the Australian Greens leader, Christine Milne, described as “sending the persecuted back to the persecutors”.