The Australian government has intercepted another asylum seeker vessel at sea and directly returned 37 asylum seekers to Sri Lankan authorities using a controversial fast-track screening process.
The immigration minister’s office confirmed on Saturday that an asylum seeker vessel carrying 38 asylum seekers was intercepted to the north of the Cocos Islands on 15 November.
While 37 of the asylum seekers were handed back directly to the Sri Lankan navy, one was held by Australian authorities after a determination that they may engage Australia’s refugee obligations. The returned asylum seekers now face prosecution in Sri Lanka for unlawfully leaving the country.
A spokeswoman for the immigration minister, Scott Morrison, said in a statement on Saturday that each of the asylum seekers was subject to the “enhanced screening” process. This means an individual officer asks asylum seekers a small number of questions to determine whether they may engage Australia’s refugee protection obligations.
“Interviews were conducted in person, on board the vessel assigned to BPC, by trained protection officers, supported by qualified Tamil and Sinhalese interpreters,” she said.
“In one case a referral for a refugee determination process was recommended. In such cases, the government’s policy is to transfer these persons to either the country of Papua New Guinea or the country of Nauru for processing. The individual remains in the care of Australian government authorities and will be transferred to an offshore processing centre.”
Sri Lankan superintendent Ajith Rohana has said the returned asylum seekers would be brought before a magistrate shortly in Sri Lanka facing charges of unlawfully leaving the country.
“Investigations are being conducted by the anti-people smuggling unit of the CID [criminal investigation department],” he said.
The return of the asylum seekers to Sri Lanka comes despite an ongoing high court challenge to the federal government’s powers to detain asylum seekers at sea and return them to their countries of origin.
The high court case relates to an earlier interception of 157 Sri Lankan asylum seekers who were held on board the customs vessel Ocean Protector for over a month in July.
Greens senator Sarah Hanson-Young said the return of the asylum seekers risked exposing them to persecution in Sri Lanka.
“Refugees need to be protected, not towed back to be imprisoned by their persecutors,” she said. “People still need protection from oppressive regimes, refugees will still flee in any way they can and now 37 asylum seekers are in a Sri Lankan jail.”
Trevor Grant, a spokesman for the Australian Tamil Congress, said: “Less than two years ago, the Australian government’s own statistics showed that about 90% of boat arrivals, including those from Sri Lanka, were judged to be in need of protection. Yet suddenly, under a secret process on a boat on the high seas, with no legal oversight, only one of 38 is judged to need protection.”
“The idea that you can properly test a person’s claim for refugee status at sea has been condemned by well-respected legal and human rights groups many times, yet this government cares nothing for its legal, moral or ethical obligations.”