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Sri Lankan migrants in legal limbo off Australian coast

© AFP | Returned asylum seekers enter a courthouse in Galle, Sri Lanka on Tuesday.

Text by FRANCE 24

Latest update : 2014-07-08

The Australian government promised Tuesday not to hand over a group of asylum seekers to Sri Lanka for three days amid a High Court case that has exposed the dark side of Australia’s tough populist immigration policy.

The late night High Court interim injunction Monday temporarily halted the transfer of the detained would-be refugees from the Australian boat, which the government had previously refused to admit existed.

Canberra agreed to give three days' notice before handing any back to Colombo, as criticism mounted.

Lawyers acting for about one-third of the mostly minority ethnic Tamils on board took their case to the High Court on Tuesday, arguing a transfer would be illegal and they should not be returned against their will.

The lawyers said they had not been able to communicate directly with the asylum seekers, adding that children were among them.

The High Court hearing, which could last up to three weeks, undercuts the government's attempt to maintain secrecy over "Operation Sovereign Borders", a centrepiece of its election victory last year.

Government lawyers said in an early submission that the boat was intercepted outside Australian territorial waters. Solicitor-General Justin Gleeson said this meant any claims made under the Australian Migration Act were not applicable.

Criticism by UN and human rights bodies

41 returned asylum seekers prosecuted in Sri Lanka

The 41 asylum seekers Australia handed over to Sri Lanka on Sunday appeared before a magistrate's court in the port city of Galle on Tuesday, facing charges of leaving the country illegally.
A defence lawyer said five remained in detention while 27 were released on bail and all children were freed.
One of the detainees, Bhamith Caldera, told AFP that he would "complain to the UN" over his treatment by Australian customs authorities and denied that he had been screened as a possible asylum seeker.
"They never asked any questions. They just wanted us to go back," he said, declining to answer if he believed he had a case for asylum. "They treated us very badly."
He said that they had been given food past its expiry date and people had been refused medicine.
"When women were down with fever, they were just given water," he added. "We were starved. Where is Australia's human rights?"

The case, which came after Australia's immigration minister confirmed that another boatload of
asylum seekers had been intercepted by Australian border patrol and handed to Sri Lankan authorities in a transfer at sea last month, has garnered international attention amid strong criticism from the United Nations and other human rights groups.

"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.

Australian Human Rights Commission chief Gillian Triggs said the screening of asylum-seekers at sea appeared to be inadequate under international law.

The process reportedly involved a four-question interview via video link with the applicants denied the means to challenge it.

"It sounds as though three or four or five questions are being asked by video conference, snap judgements are being made, and they're simply being returned," Triggs told ABC television.

"There is an obligation with international law to have a proper process."

Ben Saul, a law professor at Sydney University, told Reuters the court will consider whether the government has stretched its authority for offshore processing of asylum seekers by conducting brief interviews aboard boats rather than transferring passengers to its facilities in Nauru and Papua New Guinea.

The UN's refugee agency UNHCR said it was "deeply concerned" by the developments, although it did not have enough information about how they were screened to determine whether it was in accordance with international law.

"UNHCR's experience over the years with shipboard processing has generally not been positive," it added in a statement.

"Such an environment would rarely afford an appropriate venue for a fair procedure."

Prime Minister Abbott hits back

"(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."

In a television interview on Tuesday, Abbott dodged questions about the case.

"What I'm focused on is stopping the boats. That is what we are absolutely and constantly focused on because as long as the boats keep coming, we will keep having deaths at sea," the prime minister said.

"What we do on the water is consistent with our legal obligations and consistent with safety at sea," he added.

Australia has touted its success in blocking asylum seeker boats, saying there have been no arrivals since December.

Australia's immigration minister is due in Sri Lanka on Wednesday to meet top officials and hand over a patrol boat gifted to Sri Lanka.

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

Sri Lanka says many asylum seekers are economic migrants, but rights groups say Tamils continue to seek asylum to prevent torture, rape and other violence at the hands of the military.

(FRANCE 24 with AFP, AP, REUTERS)

Date created : 2014-07-08

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