Asylum Seekers in Limbo as Australia’s Abbott Defends Policy

Prime Minister Tony Abbott defended his government’s refugee policy amid a High Court challenge to Australia intercepting 153 Sri Lankan asylum seekers at sea and seeking to return them home.

Australia won’t be held “over a moral barrel” on the issue, Abbott told Channel Nine television today in an interview. The government will comply with its legal obligations and the asylum seekers, held on a customs vessel, are safe, he said.

Lawyers for the government argued in a High Court hearing yesterday that the asylum seekers had no right to stay in Australia as their boat didn’t reach its migration zone, the Australian Broadcasting Corp. reported. The government gave an undertaking it would only transfer the refugees to Sri Lanka with 72 hours’ notice and the case was adjourned until July 11.

Abbott’s Liberal-National coalition, which won power in September, 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 prior Labor government. Australia has previously criticized human rights violations in Sri Lanka, and the opposition Labor party and the United Nations have said the government isn’t meeting its international obligations.

“The government is running a really hard line on border security for domestic political reasons,” said Nick Economou, a political analyst at Monash University in Melbourne. “Abbott is prepared to be seen as not being a great international citizen by some sectors of the global community because he’s convinced the majority of Australians support his policy.”

‘Deeply Concerned’

The stand-off over the 153 asylum seekers comes after Australia said July 7 it had returned 41 Sri Lankans after stopping their boat in waters near the Cocos Islands in late June.

The UN High Commissioner for Refugees said this week it was “deeply concerned” as onboard processing of asylum seekers rarely resulted in a “fair procedure.”

The 153 asylum seekers, all Tamils and including 37 children, were intercepted in the Indian Ocean more than a week ago, the Sydney Morning Herald reported yesterday. The father of a three-year-old girl, born in a refugee camp in southern India, has pleaded with the government for information on her whereabouts and condition, saying he’d had no contact with his family for 10 days and that he believed she is on the customs vessel, the paper said.

People Smugglers

Sri Lanka hasn’t received “any official information” about the fate of the 153 asylum seekers at sea, navy spokesman Kosala Warnakulasuriya said in a telephone interview today. The return of the 41 Sri Lankan asylum seekers earlier this month had been coordinated by Australian Border Control, he said.

Australian Immigration Minister Scott Morrison was in Colombo today to attend a ceremony commissioning two patrol boats his government gave to Sri Lanka. Australia and Sri Lanka have “very close cooperation” in preventing illegal boats carrying asylum seekers, President Mahinda Rajapaksa’s office said in a statement today, citing Morrison.

Since winning office, Abbott’s government has turned back boatloads of asylum seekers trying to reach Australia’s shores, often ferried by people smugglers from Indonesia. Those intercepted in Australian waters are now either returned to their nation of origin or detained in offshore processing camps in Papua New Guinea and Nauru.

Tougher Stance

“If Australia hands people back to the country from which they say they are fleeing without a proper status determination process, there is a real risk it could violate its obligations under international refugee and human rights law,” said Jane McAdam, director of the Kaldor Centre for International Refugee Law at the University of New South Wales.

Australia had used a rudimentary screening process to determine the Sri Lankans’ refugee status with no right of appeal, McAdam said. Holding them on a boat indefinitely would be a violation of international law, she said.

Australia says its tougher policy will save A$2.5 billion ($2.35 billion) in the four years through June 2018. It has been more than 200 days since a people-smuggling vessel successfully arrived, according to the government.

“What the Australian people elected us to do was to stop the boats,” Abbott said in the interview today. “If you stop the boats, you stop the deaths. If you stop the boats you stop the budget blow outs.”

Civil War

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.

“Policy should be based upon our international obligations, based upon also our duty of care to ensure these people are safe,” Opposition Leader Bill Shorten told reporters in Sydney today. “As an Australian, I cannot accept from this government that it can simply wash its hands on the safety of people in our care.”

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