|JRS urges the government to adopt a policy of transparency vis-à-vis asylum seeker issues, to properly assess the validity of their claim to refugee status and to not return anyone to a country where they may be subjected to harm.|
(King’s Cross, Australia) July 6, 2014 — Jesuit Refugee Service Australia has expressed deep concern about the recent interception of two boatloads of Sri Lankan asylum seekers by Australia — one of which remains in limbo while the High Court determines the legitimacy of the government’s actions vis-à-vis the passenger’s asylum bid.
Forty-one asylum seekers were transferred mid-ocean to the Sri Lankan Navy and several now face criminal charges in their home country. The 153 asylum seekers on a second boat are being held in an undisclosed location after the High Court granted an interim injunction blocking their handover to Sri Lanka. Among the passengers are 32 women and 37 children.
"Australia may have breached its international obligations in applying a grossly inadequate system of enhanced processing, not least since it was done mid-ocean and beneath a veil of secrecy," says Oliver White, Head of Policy and Advocacy at Jesuit Refugee Service Australia.
"Both Sri Lanka and India — the country from which the 153 asylum seekers departed on their journey — have said they don't want these people returned. It is highly likely that the government will instead send them to Nauru or Manus Island. We call on the government to bring them instead to the Australian mainland and give them access to processing protocols which are generally considered to be non-discriminatory, transparent and fair."
JRS says the asylum seekers who have been returned to Sri Lanka have effectively been refouled – an internationally-prohibited practice of returning refugees to places from which they have fled and where they are at serious risk of danger.
"Australia is the lone state signatory to the Refugee Convention that denies people asylum based on their mode of arrival. Seeking asylum is a human right, and the Refugee Convention clearly states asylum seekers should not be penalized for their illegal entry, mode of arrival, or a lack of documentation," says Mr White.
Australia's 'enhanced screening' process, which bypasses rigorous refugee assessment standards in favor of a swift resolution, has already led to hundreds of Sri Lankan asylum seekers being denied access to a fair and comprehensive hearing of their claims. Close to 1,000 asylum seekers have been forcibly returned to Sri Lanka where some have allegedly faced arrest, detention, interrogation and torture.
JRS notes that the Australian government’s repeated assertions that Sri Lanka is a safe place for its citizens are at odds with the recent findings of the United Nations Human Rights Council, which has launched an inquiry into alleged war crimes committed by the present Sri Lankan government.
"Despite the end of the civil war in 2009 and the government’s claim that asylum seekers from Sri Lanka are ‘economic migrants,’ many people fleeing the country are still in genuine and urgent need of protection," says Mr White.
"Without a proper assessment, the government cannot determine whether it is safe to return asylum seekers to their country of origin. The swift and clandestine assessment of asylum seekers in transit and en route to Australia represents an unprecedented departure from this country's already-punitive asylum protocol. Asylum seekers must be given the opportunity to voice their protection claims, and be granted access to a lawyer and an independent review of the decision."
Whilst JRS acknowledges and applauds the interest states have in the eradication of people smuggling, it objects to any approach that denies those asylum seekers who have engaged people smugglers from accessing a country’s refugee determination process.
"Refugees may resort to people smugglers out of desperation and because they have no other means of obtaining a visa to enter the country legally. Until alternative pathways to safety are introduced, asylum seekers will be forced to solicit the services of smugglers so they can reach safety," explains Mr White.
JRS urges the government to adopt a policy of transparency vis-à-vis asylum seeker issues, to properly assess the validity of their claim to refugee status and to not return anyone to a country where they may be subjected to harm.
For further information
Head of Policy and Advocacy, Jesuit Refugee Service Australia
Tel: +61 2 93563888