SYDNEY: Australia's government promised Tuesday not to hand over a group of asylum seekers to the Sri Lankan government without three days' notice amid a court challenge and uproar from human rights groups.
The government's pledge came during a High Court hearing held one day after Australia's immigration minister confirmed that another boatload of asylum seekers had been intercepted by Australian border patrol and handed to Sri Lankan authorities in a transfer at sea. Refugee advocates and human rights agencies argued that the asylum seekers could face persecution in their home country.
Lawyers representing some of the Sri Lankan asylum seekers on a second boat that was intercepted went to the High Court to stop the 153 people onboard from also being returned to Sri Lanka. They are currently being held on an Australian customs vessel.
High Court Justice Susan Crennan, who issued a temporary injunction late Monday night halting any further transfers, adjourned the matter until a later date following Tuesday's hearing. In the meantime, Justin Gleeson, the government's lawyer, said no asylum seekers would be transferred without 72 hours' written notice.
The asylum seekers' attorneys argue that their clients could face persecution in Sri Lanka, which emerged in 2009 from a brutal civil war between government troops and the now-defeated separatist Tamil Tiger rebels. Refugee advocates say ethnic Tamils still face violence at the hands of the military.
The temporary reprieve granted Tuesday was trumpeted as a win by one of the asylum seekers' lawyers, George Newhouse, who said "a group of vulnerable men, women and children will not be sent back to their persecutors in Sri Lanka."
Facing a surge 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 across the world pay people smugglers to ferry them to Australia aboard rickety boats prone to sinking. Monday marked the first time the government confirmed it had screened asylum seekers at sea and returned them directly to their home country.
The seemingly quick process by which Australia rejected the refugee claims is also facing scrutiny. Rather than bringing the asylum seekers to Australia's processing centers on the Pacific island nations of Nauru and Papua New Guinea, the claims were assessed onboard an Australian vessel.
The United Nations refugee agency, UNHCR, issued a statement Tuesday saying it was "deeply concerned" by the decision to hand the asylum seekers back to Sri Lanka, and about the fate of those aboard the second boat.
The agency questioned the at-sea assessment process, saying that without further details from the government it cannot say whether Australia is violating its international obligations to refugees.
"UNHCR's experience over the years with shipboard processing has generally not been positive," it said in a statement. "Such an environment would rarely afford an appropriate venue for a fair procedure."
Gleeson, the government's lawyer, said the asylum seekers were intercepted outside Australia's territorial waters and therefore not subject to any obligations under the nation's Migration Act, which sets guidelines on how asylum seekers are processed.
Prime Minister Tony Abbott said the government's tough asylum seeker policies were, in fact, an act of compassion.
"As long as the boats keep coming, we will keep having deaths at sea," Abbott told Australia's Channel 7. "So the most decent, humane and compassionate thing you can do is to stop the boats."