The proposed handover of 153 asylum seekers to Sri Lanka's Navy would put Australia in blatant breach of international law and set a dangerous precedent, said Amnesty International.
A hearing at the High Court in Melbourne on Tuesday has put the transfer in doubt, after an application was brought on behalf of the asylum seekers that were recently intercepted by the Australian Navy on their way from India. On Sunday, Australia returned 41 aslyum seekers, that had tried to reach the country, to Sri Lanka's Navy.
“The decision that the whole High Court will hear the challenge reflects the gravity of the Australian government’s deeply concerning proposal to return asylum seekers to a country where their lives may be at serious risk,” said Amnesty International Australia’s Refugee Spokesperson Graeme McGregor.
“The Government’s temporary commitment they will not transfer the asylum seekers to Sri Lanka without giving 72 hours notice is a small step in the right direction, but the asylum seekers remain indefinitely held at sea, setting a dangerous precedent.
“Throughout this process, the Government has continually failed to provide even basic answers to the questions about the asylum seekers’ whereabouts and their safety.
“It’s taken a High Court challenge for the Government to even confirm the boat exists.
“There still remain many unanswered questions about the missing asylum seekers’ whereabouts.
“Amnesty International continues to have deep concerns about the shroud of secrecy imposed by the Government all under the guise of border security.”
Sri Lankans screened out at sea
“Earlier this week, in an unprecedented move, the Government confirmed it had subjected 41 Sri Lankan asylum seekers to what it calls an ‘enhanced screening process’ via video link.
“This denied asylum seekers a fair and adequate chance for their refugee claims to be processed.
“Asking asylum seekers only four questions each before handing them back to Sri Lankan authorities runs an extremely high risk of returning genuine refugees to torture, persecution or death,” said McGregor.
“If the Australian government wants to address the loss of asylum seekers’ lives, it should not be returning them to a country where their lives may be in grave danger.
“Australia stands alone in failing to recognise the ongoing human rights violations taking place in Sri Lanka,” Graeme McGregor added.
All asylum seekers arriving by boat should be processed in Australia under a prompt, rigorous and fair Refugee Status Determination system. Amnesty International calls on the Government to immediately cease any policy to turn back asylum seeker boats.
Sri Lanka’s ongoing human rights abuses
Human rights organisations including Amnesty International and the Human Rights Law Centre have long documented the human rights abuses widely committed by the Sri Lankan authorities against those that publicly oppose it.
Despite the end of the 2009 conflict, the Sri Lankan Government has systematically and violently cracked down on its critics.
Sri Lankan asylum seekers have faced torture upon return to Sri Lanka from countries such as the UK. Torture has been reported in rehabilitation camps, by police and military personnel in the context of counter insurgency against the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) and also in the context of civil policing. All ethnic groups in Sri Lanka continue to face risks of torture in police custody, including sexual violence, where it is pervasive. In several known cases, Tamils who have been returned to Sri Lanka have faced arbitrary arrest and detention.