The United Nations has expressed “profound concern” at Australia’s handling of asylum seekers amid reports scores of Sri Lankans will be handed over to their country’s navy after just a brief assessment by Australian authorities
Two boats carrying more than 200 Tamil asylum seekers from Sri Lanka were intercepted by Australian border security forces in the Indian Ocean this week.
They either have been, or will be, transferred to the Sri Lankan navy, Australian media said.
The prospect of a risky mid-ocean transfer of Tamil asylum seekers and their return to Sri Lanka has sparked criticism of Australia’s tough immigration policy.
Sri Lanka is facing heavy pressure from rights groups and the West for alleged human rights violations during the final phase of the war against Tamil separatists, which ended in 2009.
It says many asylum seekers are economic migrants, but rights groups say Tamils seek asylum to prevent torture, rape and other violence at the hands of the military.
Australia’s government has not confirmed any details of the incident.
The UN High Commission for Refugees (UNHCR) said it did not have official confirmation of the incidents but said it had followed “with profound concern recent reports in the media and from the community” about interceptions and assessment of claims for asylum.
“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,” UNHCR said in a statement.
Sri Lankan officials have given conflicting accounts about whether their navy has been involved, while the foreign ministry and immigration and emigration department have both claimed the other was responsible for the return of illegal migrants.
One said a number of former Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) rebels were believed to be among the asylum seekers.
Ian Rintoul, a co-ordinator for Australia’s Refugee Action Coalition, was in contact with some asylum seekers on one of the boats until last Saturday.
Nothing had been heard from those on the vessel since then and concerns were mounting that anyone suspected of having ties to the LTTE would face harsh treatment if returned to Sri Lanka.
“There have certainly been things that have come out of India that have indicated that there could be people with Tiger affiliations on that boat and that would certainly whet the appetite of the Rajapaksa regime to put their hands on those people,” Mr Rintoul said.
Australian prime minister Tony Abbott, who came to power last September partly because of his tough stance on asylum seekers, has declined to comment, saying only that it was no secret that boats had been turned back under the policy.
In the past three months, three Tamil asylum seekers on temporary visas in Australia, facing the prospect of being returned to Sri Lanka, have set themselves on fire. Two died.
Abbott’s popularity among voters has plummeted just months after taking office, largely due to domestic issues and a series of highly embarrassing public gaffes.
But more than 70 per cent of Australians support the government’s border policy, including sending boats back when safe to do so, according to a recent poll.
Australia has detention centres in the South Pacific nations of Papua New Guinea and Nauru.
About 16,000 asylum seekers came on 220 boats to Australia in the first seven months of last year but the government says there have been no illegal boat arrivals since December.