GALLE: Sri Lankan authorities plan to charge a group of 41 asylum seekers with attempting to leave the country illegally after they were returned by Australia following a controversial mid-sea transfer.
Australia’s High Court yesterday temporarily blocked the government from handing to Sri Lanka another group of 153 asylum seekers intercepted at sea, amid growing international objections to the country’s tough immigration policies.
The injunction runs until an emergency court hearing this afternoon.
Lawyer George Newhouse of law firm Shine, who represents 48 of the 153 people aboard the second boat, won the injunction in a special hearing late yesterday.
The asylum seekers were “entitled to have their claims for protection processed in accordance with Australian law,” Newhouse said.
Refugee advocates claim the asylum-seekers have been deprived of the ability to have their claims for refugee status properly assessed, with their screening reportedly being carried out at sea via video link.
The 41-strong group was brought ashore at the southern port of Galle, 115 kilometres south of the capital, and taken to the notorious high-security Boossa prison yesterday.
“They will be brought before the Galle magistrate on Tuesday,” police spokesman Ajith Rohana said.
Correcting an earlier report, he said there were 28 men, including four from the minority ethnic Tamil community, four women and nine children.
“In respect of the children, we will take them also before the magistrate, but we won’t press charges and we won’t object to their being released,” he added.
Leaving the country illegally is a criminal offence punishable with up to two years in jail.
“As soon as they were taken off the Samudra (Sri Lankan navy boat), the men were driven under high security to Boossa,” a local police official said, referring to the jail, which has earned notoriety for alleged torture from the early 1980s.
The Sri Lankan navy gave a different location for the transfer of the men from a boat belonging to the Australian Border Protection Command which had intercepted their vessel.
Australian Immigration Minister Scott Morrison in a statement said the transfer took place “just outside the port of Batticaloa,” but there is no port in Batticaloa, which is 300 kilometres east of Colombo by road.
Sri Lanka’s navy spokesman Kosala Warnakulasooriya said the 41 were taken into custody in “deep waters off the southeastern coast of Sri Lanka,” but gave no further details.
Morrison said earlier Monday that the 41 people sent back were “subjected to an enhanced screening process... to ensure compliance by Australia with our international obligations under relevant conventions”.
Only one person, a Sinhalese Sri Lankan, may have had a case for asylum but he opted to return voluntarily with the rest of the passengers, Morrison added.
In a statement, the UN refugee agency UNHCR said it was “deeply concerned” by the decision to return the 41. The UNHCR said it did not have enough information about how they were screened to determine whether the process was in accordance with international law.