Australia’s government has confirmed it handed over a boatload of asylum seekers to Sri Lankan authorities in a transfer at sea.
The incident has outraged human rights groups, which fear those on board could face persecution when they return to their home country.
The 41 Sri Lankans were intercepted by Australia’s border patrol off the Cocos Islands in the Indian Ocean in late June, immigration minister Scott Morrison said.
On Sunday they were handed over to the Sri Lankan government after their refugee claims were assessed at sea and rejected.
For days, Mr Morrison had refused to comment on reports that Australian officials had intercepted two boats carrying around 200 Sri Lankan asylum seekers and handed them over to Sri Lankan authorities. Yesterday he again declined to say whether a second boat existed.
In a bid to stem a rising tide of asylum seekers trying to reach Australia, the conservative government has implemented a tough policy of turning back their boats.
Until now, the vessels have been returned to Indonesia, where asylum seekers from Afghanistan, Iran, Sri Lanka and other countries pay people smugglers to ferry them to Australia aboard rickety boats.
This marks the first time Prime Minister Tony Abbott’s government has confirmed it had screened asylum seekers at sea and returned them directly to their home country.
Among those leaving Sri Lanka are ethnic Tamils who survived a lengthy civil war between government troops and the now-defeated separatist Tamil Tiger rebels. Refugee advocates say Tamils still face violence from the military.
“Some of these people will be handed straight back to danger,” said Sarah Hanson-Young, immigration spokeswoman for the minor Greens party.
Mr Morrison said four of the asylum seekers on board were Tamils and none were at risk of persecution. “All were screened in terms of any potential protection obligation and none were found to be owed that protection,” he told Macquarie Radio.
A Sri Lankan navy spokesman confirmed the asylum seekers had arrived in the southern port city of Galle, but gave no details on what would happen to them.
Generally, asylum seekers in Sri Lanka are handed over to police and face fines. Jail terms are likely only for those with proven links to militant groups or smuggling.
The initial reports of a handover last week prompted the United Nations refugee agency, UNHCR, to issue a statement expressing “profound concern” that Australia was processing asylum seekers at sea rather than bringing them ashore to assess their claims.
“UNHCR considers that individuals who seek asylum must be properly and individually screened for protection needs,” it said, adding that “international law prescribes that no individual can be returned involuntarily to a country in which he or she has a well-founded fear of persecution”.
Amnesty International said the cursory processing of complex refugee claims meant they may not be properly investigated. It said that could leave Australia in violation of its international obligation. Mr Morrison said Australia had complied with its legal obligations.