While an interim High Court injunction last night temporarily prevented the return of 153 asylum seekers to Sri Lankan authorities, the Jesuit Refugee Service has expressed deep concern over revised asylum protocols.
The Jesuit Refugee Service Australia (JRS) is deeply concerned about reports that Australia has intercepted two boatloads of Sri Lankan asylum seekers near Christmas Island and the Cocos Islands and has planned a mid-ocean transfer to the Sri Lankan Navy after conducting a mere four-question assessment of the asylum seekers via video link.
JRS notes that it has not been able to confirm these reports because of the veil of secrecy that the Australian government has cast over its actions against asylum seekers seeking to arrive in Australia by boat.
The government's 'enhanced screening' process – under which JRS presumes such a mid-ocean transfer would occur – is grossly insufficient and is not rigorous enough to meet basic standards of fairness. Moreover, it puts asylum seekers at risk of refoulement – the 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 penalised for their illegal entry, mode of arrival, or a lack of documentation,' says Oliver White, Head of Policy and Advocacy at JRS.
The 'enhanced screening' process, which bypasses rigorous refugee assessment standards in favour 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 one-thousand 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.
Full release: JRS responds to alleged mid-ocean refugee assessment (Jesuit Refugee Service)
Related coverage: High Court grants injunction over asylum seeker boat (The Age)
Image, The Herald Sun