Extended coverage: Transfer of Sri Lankan asylum seekers challenged in High Court
The High Court issued an interim injunction overnight, temporarily barring the return of 153 asylum seekers to Sri Lankan authorities.
The court will hear the case against the return of the asylum seekers today, following the earlier transfer of 41 asylum seekers to Sri Lankan authorities. Some of the first boatload of returned asylum seekers are reportedly facing court, charged under the Immigrants and Emigrants Act.
The Australian government has released no information regarding the most recent boat, prompting pleas from family of passengers, believed to include nine children.
A relative of one of the passengers, three-year-old Febrina, told the Tamil Refugee Council he had not heard from his family aboard the boat for more than week.
Speaking anonymously, he pleaded for Immigration Minister Scott Morrison for information, the Tamil Refugee Council said in a statement.
“I am desperate to know where my family is,” he said.
“I want to plead with the Australian minister to stop our pain and let us know what he has done with all the kids and families on the boat. I ask him to be kind to these people. They are all very frightened.”
The relative, who himself fled Sri Lanka after allegedly being tortured, said his family will be tortured again “and even killed” if they are handed over to authorities.
His three-year-old relative is among the nine children aboard the boat, including a 10-month-old baby, according to the Tamil Refugee Council.
Council spokesman Trevor Grant said the government’s action on asylum seekers had “reached a new low”.
“We have become a country that disappears people to suit political objectives,” he said.
“It is a shameful state of affairs.”
Disrupting policy ‘in Labor DNA’
The Prime Minister has also responded to the actions of the High Court.
Speaking to Channel Seven this morning, Tony Abbott dismissed the action lodged by a “former Labor candidate”, George Newhouse.
“The Labor party and its activists, the Greens and their activists, they will try to disrupt the government’s policy,” he said.
“They will try and do things that start the boats up again because that’s in Labor DNA.”
Mr Abbott said he would not comment on “what may or may not be happening on the water”.
“What I’m focussed on is stopping the boats, that is what we’re absolutely and constantly focussed on,” he said.
“Because as the boats keep coming we will keep having deaths at sea so the most decent, humane and compassionate thing you can do is to stop the boats.”
High Court hearing ‘very, very important’
Mr Abbott’s comments are in contrast to those made by President of the Human Rights Commission Gillian Triggs, who said the Australian government appeared to be in breach of its international obligations.
Speaking on ABC television this morning, Professor Triggs said the government cannot “return an asylum seeker to the place where they have subject to persecution”.
“The High Court hearing is a very, very important opportunity for our most senior judges to examine exactly what is going on and in a way to call the minister and the Department for Immigration to account,” she said.
Professor Triggs also criticised the screening process believed to be carried out by Australian authorities.
“It sounds as though three, four or five questions are being asked by video conference,” she said.
“Snap judgements are being made and they’re simply being returned. There is an obligation to have a proper process.”
Professor Donald Rothwell from the Australian National University also criticised the so-called “enhanced processing procedures”, which he said were in violation with procedures detailed by the United Nations.
“Those procedures don’t contemplate claims being assessed at seas,” he said.
“They certainly don’t contemplate claims being assessed via videolink… and they certainly do not contemplate a relatively rapid assessment process with quite possibly a handful of questions being asked of people being asked of persons claiming asylum.
“Rather it envisages a much more rigorous, detailed process whereby asylum seekers do have legal assistance.”
The UN has also weighed in on the issue, saying it is “deeply concerned” over the government’s actions.
”UNHCR’s experience over the years with shipboard processing has generally not been positive,” a statement issued overnight said.
“Such an environment would rarely afford an appropriate venue for a fair procedure.”
Government ‘playing hide and seek’
Greens Senator Sarah Hanson-Young welcomed the High Court injunction, saying it would hold the government to account on its international obligations.
Addressing media this morning, Senator Hanson-Young accused the government of “playing hide and seek with the lives of children”.
“It is only right that the High Court demand answers from the government about exactly what is going on with those they are intercepting and holding in custody,” she said.
George Newhouse, the lawyer who launched the action, said asylum seekers were “entitled to have their claims for protection processed in accordance with Australian law”.
“The asylum-seekers claim that they are fleeing persecution and that they’re at risk of death, torture or significant harm by Sri Lankan authorities,” he told Australian Associated Press.
“The minister cannot simply intercept their vessel in the middle of the night and disappear them.”
A decision on the case, to be heard at 2pm, is expected today.
Comment has been sought from the Sri Lankan High Commissioner.