Australia asylum: Court given 72-hour warning pledge

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Media captionPhil Mercer says the legal team are arguing the passengers have rights for asylum

Australia says it will not return a group of asylum seekers to Sri Lanka without giving 72 hours' notice.

The promise came at an emergency court hearing over the fate of the 153-strong group, who were intercepted at sea.

Rights lawyers filed the challenge after Australia confirmed on Monday it had handed over a separate group of 41 asylum seekers to the Sri Lankan navy.

Rights groups say screening asylum seekers at sea and returning them may violate their rights.

Reports had been circulating since last week that two boats had been stopped at sea. On Monday, after the government confirmed it had returned one boat-load, lawyers obtained an interim order regarding the second boat.

Until today, the government has refused to comment on the second boat.

The group, who lawyers say are Tamil, are now on an Australian vessel, the Australian Broadcasting Corporation reports.

Rights groups say Tamils can still face intimidation and violence in Sri Lanka, five years after the end of the civil war, which pitted the majority Sinhalese Sri Lankan military against Tamil separatists.

Lawyers for the group argued in court that they had not had access to proper asylum procedures. But Solicitor-General Justin Gleeson said the boat was found outside Australia's migration zone, meaning the group had no right to claim asylum.

The case has now been adjourned until Friday.

'Deeply concerned'

Australia's decision to return asylum seekers in this manner has attracted strong criticism from human rights representatives and the UN.

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Image caption Conditions in Australia's processing facility in PNG have been severely criticised

Australia and asylum

  • Asylum seekers - mainly from Afghanistan, Sri Lanka, Iraq and Iran - travel to Australia's Christmas Island on rickety boats from Indonesia
  • The number of boats rose sharply in 2012 and the beginning of 2013, and scores of people have died making the journey
  • The previous government reintroduced offshore processing in Nauru and Papua New Guinea (PNG). Any asylum seekers found to be refugees will be resettled in PNG, not Australia
  • The new government has toughened policy further, putting the military in charge of asylum operations and towing boats back to Indonesia
  • Rights groups and the United Nations have voiced serious concerns about the policies. Australia says no new asylum boats have arrived for 200 days

Australia asylum: Why is it controversial?

The government said all those transferred on Monday underwent a screening process at sea. Only four were Tamils and only one man - a Sinhalese - was recommended for further assessment, but he chose to return to Sri Lanka, the government said.

Human Rights Commissioner Gillian Triggs said Australia was obliged under international law to put asylum seekers through a proper screening process.

"It sounds as though three or four or five questions are being asked by video conference, snap judgments are being [made], and they're simply being returned," she told the Australian Broadcasting Corporation.

The UN refugee agency UNHCR said it was "deeply concerned" about both groups.

The agency said it needed to know more about the screening process afforded to the returnees to determine whether the process was in accordance with international law.

"UNHCR's experience over the years with shipboard processing has generally not been positive. Such an environment would rarely afford an appropriate venue for a fair procedure," it said.

Sri Lankan officials, meanwhile, said the adults in the group returned on Monday would be charged with leaving the country illegally, because they did not go via an authorised departure port.

Twenty-seven of them have since been freed on bail, AFP news agency reports.

Australian Prime Minister Tony Abbott inherited hard-line asylum policies from the previous government and has since toughened them.

He says his policy is about saving lives by preventing people getting on potentially dangerous boats to travel to Australia.

On Monday his immigration minister, Scott Morrison, said there had been no new arrivals by boat in 200 days.

Many Australians support the tough asylum policy, believing those concerned are economic migrants rather than political refugees.

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