Australia's Treatment of Asylum Seekers Under Fire Due to Possible Violation of Refugee Convention

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By Reissa Su | July 8, 2014 4:46 PM EST

After Australia returned a group of asylum seekers to Sri Lanka, the country has been accused of breaking the internatioal refugee convention. A group of 41 Sri Lankan asylum seekers had attempted to reach Australia by boat. The refugees' attempts to seek asylum in the country did not succeed as they were intercepted and handed over the Sri Lankan navy.

REUTERS/Aulia Pratama/Files
Asylum seekers from Afghanistan, Iraq and Iran cry as Indonesian officers force them to leave the Australian vessel Hermia docked at Indah Kiat port in Merak, Indonesia's Banten province in this April 9, 2012 file photo. REUTERS/Aulia Pratama/Files

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According to UNHCR, it was "deeply concerned" about the events that happened on July 6 off the coast of Sri Lanka. The turning back of asylum seeker boats was part of the Australian government's campaign against asylum seekers who attempt to land by boat.

Reports said Sri Lankan officials confirmed all 41 asylum seekers were turned over to the navy. Sri Lankan police charged the refugees with illegally leaving the country. Their boat was intercepted by the Australian forces in observance of Operation Soverign Borders.

It was previously reported that two boats carrying around 200 Sri Lankan asylum seekers were intercepted and turned back.

Australian Immigration Minister Scott Morrison has refused to reveal any details about the second asylum seeker boat which left southern India on June 13, carrying 153 Tamils. The number includes 37 children. Morrison only said the boat is no longer in Australian territory.

According to the Guardian, several passengers on board have contacted media personnel and refugee advocates to seek help. A second boat has been allegedly intercepted by Australian authorities off the coast of Christmas Island a week ago and it was possible those aboard were turned over to the Sri Lankan navy as well.

A spokesman for the Sri Lankan police, Ajith Rohana, said asylum seekers who were handed back to the Sri Lankan navy could face consequences. He said they will be sentenced to two years of rigorous imprisonment and a fine if they are found to have left the country illegally.

According to legal experts from 17 universities in Australia, the Abbott government's attempt to quickly screen the 41 asylum seekers protection claims via teleconference while out at sea were against the "minimum standards" regarding the determination of refugee status under international law.

The scholars said holding asylum seekers in this way can be interpreted as "incommunicado detention without judicial scrutiny."

Reports said the UNCHR is concerned about the welfare of the 41 asylum seekers as well as the 153 others who will be subjected to Australia's high court injunction. In its statement, the agency said it is not in the position to declare if Australia has violated international law without more information.

Meanwhile, Morrison reacted to the claims against Australia's alleged violation of international law and said they were "shrill and hysterical." He said the Australian government will uphold its international obligations and protect life at sea. However, the government does not want people-smugglers to take advantage of this fact.

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(Photo: REUTERS/Aulia Pratama/Files / )
Asylum seekers from Afghanistan, Iraq and Iran cry as Indonesian officers force them to leave the Australian vessel Hermia docked at Indah Kiat port in Merak, Indonesia's Banten province in this April 9, 2012 file photo. REUTERS/Aulia Pratama/Files
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