Australia has acknowledged that it handed over 41 asylum seekers to Sri Lankan authorities in a transfer at sea amid criticism the move could imperil those possibly facing persecution in their home country.
Immigration Minister Scott Morrison said in a statement on the ministry's website that the 41 Sri Lankans were intercepted at sea in late June. They were returned to Sri Lankan authorities on Sunday, the statement said.
"All persons intercepted and returned were subjected to an enhanced screening process, as also practised by the previous government, to ensure compliance by Australia with our international obligations under relevant conventions," the statement read.
It added that one person onboard was assessed as having a case for asylum and was given the option of being processed in Nauru or Papua New Guinea. The person, a Sinhalese Sri Lankan national, voluntarily asked to be returned to Sri Lanka, according to the statement.
The 41 people included 37 Sinhalese and four Tamils. Sri Lanka ended a decades-long civil war against separatist Tamil rebels in 2009. But human rights groups say the government, which is dominated by the Sinhalese, also cracked down on civilian Tamil populations. They say Tamils still face reprisals from the military.
Indeed, a Sri Lankan police official told Reuters that those returned would be charged with leaving the country illegally and, if found guilty, would face "rigorous imprisonment." But The Associated Press quoted a Sri Lankan navy spokesman as saying asylum-seekers "face fines, but jail terms are likely only for those with proven links to militant groups or the smuggling trade."
Morrison's statement on Monday was the first acknowledgment of news reports that Australia had intercepted two boats that carried 200 asylum seekers from Sri Lanka. But the statement did not acknowledge the existence of a second vessel. Late Monday night, the Australian High Court granted an interim injunction to block the handover of 153 asylum seekers to Sri Lanka. Lawyers had argued that the return of the asylum seekers was illegal.
Here's more from the Australian Broadcasting Corp.:
"Justice Susan Crennan declared it is probable that the asylum seekers have been detained or are in the custody of the Navy, and would be handed over to Sri Lankan authorities.
"She ordered an interim injunction against any transfer until this afternoon, when the matter is set to be heard in the High Court."
The interim injunction will prevent the government from transferring the asylum seekers until a court hearing Tuesday.
Australia is often a favored destination for asylum seekers, and the government of Prime Minister Tony Abbott has vowed to crack down. The AP notes:
"In a bid to stem a rising tide of asylum seekers trying to reach Australian shores, the nation's conservative government implemented a tough policy of turning back their boats. Until now, the vessels have been returned to Indonesia, where asylum seekers from Afghanistan, Iran, Sri Lanka and other countries pay people smugglers to ferry them to Australia aboard rickety boats."
Australia's decision sparked criticism from the U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees, which said that the agency had "previously made known its concerns to Australia about its enhanced screening procedures and their non- compliance with international law."
"UNHCR does not object to the returns of persons properly found not to be in need of international protection, but considers anyone claiming asylum has a right to have their case properly assessed by qualified personnel in accordance with the necessary procedural and legal safeguards," the agency said in a statement.