Australia 'told refugees to find own way back to India'

Refugees were told they would be put in lifeboats with a map of India and Sri Lanka

A woman protests Australian immigration policy
(Image credit: WILLIAM WEST/AFP/Getty Images)

A group of 157 Sri Lankan asylum seekers, including 50 children, were transferred to a detention centre in Nauru yesterday by the Australian government, after being told that they would have to navigate their own way home.

The asylum seekers were intercepted in the Indian Ocean in June, apparently having set sail for Australia from India, and held at sea for a month by Australian officials.

They were allegedly locked in a windowless room with little food or water, in what lawyers acting on their behalf have described as a "harrowing and traumatic" experience, The Guardian reports.

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The lawyers have also alleged that the refugees were told that they would be put in lifeboats and forced to make their own way back to India.

"The whole episode reveals the desperate measures [immigration officials] are prepared to use, regardless of the human cost", Hugh DeKretser, one such lawyer, said.

The asylum seekers were eventually brought ashore in Australia while officials negotiated their return to India. The Australian government says the group refused to go and was then flown to the detention centre in Nauru.

Campaigners argue that the centre, which is currently under investigation by the Human Rights Commission, is unsuitable for children. Amnesty International condemned the transfer, saying it breached the United Nations Refugee Convention.

Australia changed its policy on asylum seekers last year with the aim of preventing deaths at sea, the BBC reports. Prime Minister Tony Abbott defended the move, saying that stopping the boats was "the kindest humanitarian thing to do", The Guardian says.

But Australia's Greens senator Sarah Hanson-Young argues that refugees are being used as "political pawns" in the government's "desperate game" to appear tough on immigration.

If their asylum applications are successful they will be settled in Nauru, but if they fail they will be sent back to Sri Lanka.

Asylum seekers trapped at sea by Australian dispute

8 July

The Australian government has conceded that it will give at least 72 hours warning if it plans to return a group of asylum seekers to Sri Lanka, in a case which has attracted worldwide attention, the BBC reports.

The promise was given at an emergency High Court hearing that will determine the fate of 153 Sri Lankan asylum seekers who were intercepted by border patrol officers on a ship in the Indian Ocean.

"Our goal for today was to make sure the 153 asylum seekers are safe, and for now we have achieved this temporarily," George Newhouse, the lawyer who brought the legal challenge told Channel 4 news.

The case has been adjourned until Friday and the Australian government has confirmed that the group of asylum seekers, which includes women and children, will remain in custody at sea until a verdict is reached.

This decision comes a day after another vessel was intercepted by Australian border forces, and the 41 asylum seekers on board were handed over to Sri Lankan authorities after a brief series of questions. Lawyers described the actions as "a clear violation of international law".

Tony Abbott, the Australian prime minister, "says his policy is about saving lives by preventing people getting on potentially dangerous boats to travel to Australia", the BBC reports

The Tamil Refugee Council of Australia issued a statement from a relative of one of the children on the second boat.

"I want to plead with the Australian minister to stop our pain and let us know what he has done with all the kids and families on the boat," he said through a translator. "I ask him to be kind to these people.

"They are all very frightened. They cannot be sent back to Sri Lanka. Many of them will be tortured again and even killed."

Australia admits returning 41 asylum seekers to Sri Lanka

7 July

Australia's immigration minister Scott Morrison has confirmed that 41 asylum seekers have been returned to Sri Lanka, in a move which has fuelled criticism of Australia's hard-line immigration policy.

He refused to comment on the fate of those aboard a second boat reportedly carrying a further 153 asylum seekers, saying only that it was no longer in Australian waters, the BBC reports.

Australian border patrol officials intercepted the boat carrying the 41 asylum seekers near the Cocos Islands last week. Today a temporary injunction has been issued by the Australian High Court, blocking the government from returning those aboard the second vessel to Sri Lanka, [1] ABC news reports.

Lawyers argue that "the asylum seekers are entitled to have their allegations – claims against the Sri Lankan government – heard and processed in accordance with the law." The matter will be heard in full by the High Court on Tuesday afternoon.

Human rights campaigners say the return of the asylum seekers on the first boat was "in violation of international law".

The UN refugee agency UNHCR has expressed "profound concern" at Australia's actions, saying "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."

Morrison claimed that everyone on board was subjected to an "enhanced screening process" before being returned to the authorities at the Sri Lankan port of Batticaloa.

However, Australia's shadow minister for immigration Richard Marles questioned how a credible processing system could have been conducted by "video link at sea in a way which gave an individual assessment, when all the time the boat was steaming towards Sri Lanka," according to the BBC.

The UN called the screening process "unfair an unreliable" as the those onboard were only asked four questions in order to establish their eligibility to claim asylum, The Guardian reports.

Human rights groups claim they have documented evidence of returned asylum seekers facing torture, rape and other violence at the hands of the Sri Lankan military.

The Sri Lankan authorities have confirmed that the 41 asylum seekers will be handed over to the police for "clarification" purposes and could face charges.

A group of 53 Australian international law experts have signed a statement condemning the actions, the Sydney Morning Herald reports.

"These people [were] held on the high seas, without being allowed to contact lawyers, challenge their detention in court or speak with family and friends," said Ben Saul, a law professor at Sydney University, who signed the statement.

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