“The Australian government has reached a frightening new low as a human rights’ denier and perpetrator,” the Tamil Refugee Council said on July 3.
The council was responding to “credible media reports” about immigration minister Scott Morrison's “abhorrent act of secretly sending back a boatload of Tamil asylum-seekers to the certainty of a Sri Lankan jail and the probability of rape and torture”.
On July 4, the council said at least 11 of the asylum seekers reportedly handed over had been tortured by Sri Lanka's intelligence services before.
The July 4 Sydney Morning Herald said Tamil asylum seekers were intercepted by the Australian navy on boats near the Cocos Islands: “For the first time, the Sri Lankan government confirmed that failed asylum seekers would be switched straight onto its navy ships at sea, even as the Australian government dug in on its hardline refusal to provide any information.”
The United Nations expressed “profound concern” over the reports. In what the SMH described as “a rare statement”, the UN High Commission for Refugees stressed that “requests for international protection should be considered within the territory of the intercepting state, consistent with fundamental refugee-protection principles”.
SMH said: “Fairfax Media can reveal that the number of questions being asked of the Sri Lankans to establish whether they are genuine refugees has been slashed fivefold — from 19 to just four — a move that has drawn heavy fire from international-law experts.”
Don Rothwell, a professor of international law at the Australian National University, branded the development “unprecedented”, the article said. Professor Jane McAdam, from the Kaldor Centre for International Refugee Law at the University of NSW, said the move did not comply with international law.
The UNHCR insisted asylum seekers should be “properly and individually screened for protection needs ... through a substantive and fair refugee status determination procedure”.
Despite the refusal of his government to discuss details of the new boat arrivals, Prime Minister Tony Abbott insisted on July 3: “I would be very happy to give the Australian people an assurance that we are absolutely confident that no harm would come to anyone who has been in our charge”.
Abbott described Sri Lanka as “a society at peace”. While Sri Lanka was not “everyone’s idea of the ideal society”, Abbott claimed much progress had been made on human rights.
However, the Australian Tamil Congress (ATC) said in a July 2 statement: “Sri Lanka is a dangerous country for asylum seekers to be returned to.
“Credible international agencies and eminent persons have documented abduction, arbitrary detention, torture, rape and sexual violence against persons returned to Sri Lanka, who had sought humanitarian protection in other countries.
“Earlier this year, the UN Human Rights Council approved an international war crimes inquiry into alleged war crimes committed in Sri Lanka.”
ATC executive officer for refugee affairs, Dr Bala Vigneswaran, said: “Non-refoulement is a key element of refugee law which concerns the protection of refugees from being returned to places where they are fleeing from prosecution, and where their lives and freedoms are threatened.
“Returning people seeking humanitarian protection to their native country without providing a genuine opportunity to present their claims and processing such claims is a flagrant violation of the norms of the Refugee Convention and the international law.”
Tamil Refugee Council spokesperson Trevor Grant said: “Australia’s moral, ethical and legal compass has been lost at sea.”
Grant called Abbott's claims on the situation in Sri Lanka “a deliberate lie, cynically presented to the Australian public for one reason; to support his indefensible, illegal policy of sending back Tamil asylum-seekers to Sri Lanka.”
He said reports asylum seekers “have had their refugee claims assessed in brief teleconference calls on a boat that was involved in sending them back … not only breach Australia’s legal responsibilities under international law but put our nation into the category of gross violators of human rights.”
Grant pointed to Abbott's infamous comments at a Commonwealth Heads of Government Meeting in Colombo last November about evidence of torture by Sri Lankan authorities. Abbott responded by stating: “Difficult things happen in difficult circumstances.”
Grant said: “Now, in the face of damning evidence that Sri Lanka is on a genocidal path against Tamils, Abbott declares the country is at peace simply to support his ‘whatever-it-takes’ intention to stop asylum-seekers from reaching our shores.
“Australia’s appalling alignment with the brutal Rajapaksa regime, which includes the supply of boats to stop asylum-seekers from fleeing persecution, is trashing our international reputation. We are now seen as a country not just ignoring massive human rights’ abuses but also as an active, eager facilitator of those abuses.”