The United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) today voiced deep concern after Australia handed over some 41 asylum-seekers to Sri Lanka after intercepting them at sea, and highlighted its unease with shipboard processing of protection claims.
The agency said it is also concerned about the fate of another 153 asylum-seekers of Sri Lankan origin who are now subject to an Australian High Court injunction on their return.
In a news release, UNHCR said it understands that “enhanced screening procedures” were used as a basis for determining whether the 41 individuals involved raised claims for protection which required further consideration.
“Without further information UNHCR is not in a position, at this time, to confirm whether they were in accordance with international law,” the agency stated.
“UNHCR has previously made known its concerns to Australia about its enhanced screening procedures and their non-compliance with international law.”
According to media reports, the 41 Sri Lankans were intercepted by Australia’s border patrol off the Cocos Islands in the Indian Ocean in late June. They were handed over to the Sri Lankan Government yesterday after their refugee claims were assessed at sea and rejected.
“UNHCR’s experience over the years with shipboard processing has generally not been positive. Such an environment would rarely afford an appropriate venue for a fair procedure,” said the agency.
The principle of non-refoulement – the prohibition on the forced return of a person to a country where his or her life or freedom would be threatened – in the 1951 Refugee Convention and more broadly under customary international law is clear, UNHCR pointed out.
“It applies wherever an asylum-seeker is found and to whatever manner the expulsion or return is carried out, including during interception and other sea operations,” the agency stated.
“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.”