The mysterious return of Tamil and Sinhalese asylum seekers to
the Sri Lankan authorities has triggered an urgent injunction
application in the High Court of Australia.
In late June 2014, around 200 Sinhalese and Tamils from Sri
Lanka jumped onto two boats headed for Australia, to seek
One boat, containing 43 asylum seekers, was intercepted by the
Australian Navy. A screening process was conducted on board to
assess the claims for asylum. Only 1 of the 43 asylum seekers was
then offered asylum.
The asylum seekers on the first boat were handed back to the
Sri Lankan navy and are likely to face charges in Sri Lanka for
illegally leaving the country.
The Commonwealth won't comment on the whereabouts and fate
of the other boat, which carries the remaining 153 asylum seekers
(including women and children).
The problem at international law
Australia is a party to several international conventions which
aim to protect the rights of refugees. A key mechanism in the
protection of refugees is the principle of non-refoulement.
Basically a country shouldn't send a refugee to a place where
their life or freedom would be threatened because of their
ethnicity, religion, or membership of a particular political or
social group. Seems logical. It is international law's way of
saying that Dracula is not the best person to be in charge of the
The current processing of asylum seekers in Australia, and the
lengthy periods which these often innocent and persecuted people
spend in detention, is far from ideal. In our opinion it is at odds
with Australia's international obligations to protect and care
for refugees. On the upside, while in detention, they have access
to legal support/care agencies that work to protect refugee rights.
We doubt that the 'screening at sea' process would have
afforded the Sinhalese and Tamil asylum seekers that same level of
The High Court injunction
On 7 July 2014, the High Court granted an urgent interim
injunction to prevent the handover to Sri Lankan authorities of the
second boat with its 153 asylum seekers. We think it is great to
see the High Court willing to use its full suite of constitutional
powers to protect refugees, and to step in to act on a possible
violation of some of Australia's most important international
The matter is back before the High Court on 8 July 2014 for
further hearing. We expect some fireworks if the Commonwealth again
turns up and says 'we don't know what happened to the other
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