Australia said it returned 41 asylum seekers to Sri Lanka after stopping their boat, as the United Nations expressed concern over intercepting refugees at sea.
The asylum seekers, including 37 Sinhalese and 4 Tamil Sri Lankan nationals, were intercepted in waters near the Cocos Islands in late June and transfered to authorities outside the city of Batticaloa yesterday, Immigration Minister Scott Morrison said in a statement today. They were part of a “maritime people smuggling venture,” he said.
Prime Minister Tony Abbott’s coalition says it’s fulfilling a pre-election commitment to “stop the boats” amid hundreds of deaths at sea and an influx of refugees under the previous government. Australia has previously criticized human rights violations in Sri Lanka, and the opposition Greens Party said today the government wasn’t fulfilling its international obligations.
“There is nothing legal about what the government is doing out on the high seas,” Greens Senator Sarah Hanson-Young said in a statement. The UN has confirmed the government’s actions don’t accord with Australia’s legal obligations, she said.
A UN panel in April 2011 accused Sri Lanka’s military and Tamil Tiger rebels of committing serious violations of international law in the final stages of a three-decade civil war, which ended in 2009 with an offensive it said killed as many as 40,000 civilians. Australia in March 2012 co-sponsored a UN Human Rights Council resolution that called on Sri Lanka to address alleged violations of international law.
The UN High Commissioner for Refugees said in a statement last week it was concerned at reports Australia was intercepting boats.
“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,” it said in a statement on its website. “Requests for international protection should be considered within the territory of the intercepting state, consistent with fundamental refugee protection principles.”
Morrison said the government will “continue to reject the public and political advocacy of those who have sought to pressure the government into a change of policy.”
“Their advocacy, though well intentioned, is naively doing the bidding of people smugglers who have been responsible for almost 1,200 deaths at sea,” he said in the statement.
It’s been 200 days since a people-smuggling venture successfully arrived, according to the government. Those intercepted in Australian waters are now either returned to their nation of origin or detained in off-shore processing camps in Papua New Guinea and Nauru.
People seeking to enter Australia by boat and without visas often come from war-torn Middle Eastern and South Asian nations. Australia says its tougher policy will save A$2.5 billion ($2.34 billion) in the four years through June 2018.