Asylum seekers screened at sea returned to Sri Lanka

Immigration Minister Scott Morrison has confirmed some asylum seekers screened at sea have been returned to Sri Lanka. He will visit the country on Wednesday. Photo: Alex Ellinghausen

Immigration Minister Scott Morrison has confirmed some asylum seekers screened at sea have been returned to Sri Lanka. He will visit the country on Wednesday. Photo: Alex Ellinghausen

The Abbott government has confirmed that 41 Sri Lankan asylum seekers who attempted to reach Australia by boat have been handed over to Sri Lankan authorities.

Immigration Minister Scott Morrison released a statement on Monday saying that the asylum seekers, whose boat was intercepted in late June, were returned to Sri Lanka yesterday.

According to Mr Morrison, 37 of the returned asylum seekers were from the Sinhalese majority and four were Tamil Sri Lankan nationals. Only one of the asylum seekers, who was Sinhalese, passed screening to seek asylum but chose to return to Sri Lanka with the other asylum seekers.

Prime Minister Tony Abbott speaks with Sri Lankan President Mahinda Rajapaksa. Australia has returned 41 asylum seekers to Sri Lankan custody despite Australia accusing the country of state-sponsored torture. Photo: Chris Jackson/Getty Images

Prime Minister Tony Abbott speaks with Sri Lankan President Mahinda Rajapaksa. Australia has returned 41 asylum seekers to Sri Lankan custody despite Australia accusing the country of state-sponsored torture. Photo: Chris Jackson/Getty Images

Mr Morrison has not commented on the status of another boat of asylum seekers, said to carrying about 150 asylum seekers, which was reportedly intercepted by Australian authorities around a week ago.

The returns come despite Australia accusing Sri Lanka of state-sponsored torture, abuse and mistreatment of citizens.

The asylum seekers were transferred to a Sri Lankan navy vessel off the Port of Batticaloa on Sunday.

Mr Morrison said the asylum seekers, described in his statement as “potential illegal maritime arrivals”, were returned following an enhanced screening process.

Fairax Media reported last week that Australian officials were screening asylum seekers at sea via video link by asking four basic questions: the asylum seeker’s name, their country of origin, where they had come from and why they had left.

Mr Morrison said: “The Australian government will continue to act in accordance with our international obligations, including applicable international conventions and to protect the safety of life at sea.

''At the same time will not allow people smugglers to try and exploit and manipulate Australia's support of these conventions as a tool to undermine Australia's strong border protection regime that is stopping the boats and the deaths at sea.

''Accordingly, the government will continue to reject the public and political advocacy of those who have sought to pressure the government into a change of policy.”

He said the government was grateful to Sri Lankan authorities for their assistance in tackling people smuggling and that it looks forward to continued co-operation with Sri Lanka.

The move has been condemned by Green immigration spokeswoman Sarah Hanson-Young and Labor has also criticised the government saying its lack of transparency displayed contempt for the public.

Former Liberal prime minister Malcolm Fraser was also scathing of the government, saying handing asylum seekers back to Sri Lanka at sea was redolent of handing Jews over to the Nazis in the 1930s.

Senator Hanson-Young said she remained concerned about the fate of the asylum seekers sent to Sri Lanka even though most of them are Sinhalese.

''How can we know these people are going to be ok?'' she told ABC radio on Monday..

''The United Nations have criticised the screening of people out on the high seas as the government has done.

''There is nothing legal about the way [the government] has conducted these operations. They fall far short of our international obligations.''

Labor Senate leader Penny Wong on Monday criticised the lack of information from the government until now and called for it to provide an explanation to Parliament.

''These are serious issues and the government should treat them seriously,'' Senator Wong told ABC radio.

''Australians also expect that their government complies with what are our ethical and legal obligations – which are not to return people to risk of persecution.

''If the government says they have complied with that then they should be full and frank about how they have done so.''

Greens leader Christine Milne said the government’s actions were against international law and decency.

''It's absolutely appalling,'' she told reporters on Monday.

Independent senator Nick Xenophon says he is ''uneasy'' with the government's actions and wants the returned Sri Lankans monitored to ensure they do not come to any harm.

SMH with AAP

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