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IBRU: Centre for Borders Research

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Australia faces international criticism after returning asylum-seekers to Sri Lanka

(16 July 2014)

The interception and return of forty-one Sri Lankans seeking asylum in Australia has provoked increased criticism of Australian refugee policy by human rights organizations and the United Nations Refugee Agency (UNHCR). After intercepting the asylum seekers, Australia used videoconferencing technologies to screen their asylum claims and rejected all but one person on board the boat. The asylum seekers were returned to Sri Lanka, where they were charged by the Sri Lankan government with attempting to leave the country illegally, a crime that carries a two-year jail sentence.

The fate of another boat of Sri Lankan asylum seekers intercepted near Australia’s Christmas Island on the same day remains uncertain. The 153 asylum seekers on board have been held aboard an Australian customs ship for over two weeks, and government officials have refused to allow contact with legal representatives or make the location of the customs ship public. The Australian High Court is currently determining whether the return of these asylum seekers to their home country would breach humanitarian law.

Meanwhile, conflicting reports have emerged about self-harm among asylum seekers at Australia’s Christmas Island Immigration Detention Centre. Labour lawmakers and human rights advocates claim that several women at the detention centre have attempted suicide in recent weeks because they believed their children would have greater odds of being resettled in Australia without them. Senior government minister Eric Abetz confirmed that “a small number of minor self-harm incidents have occurred” on Christmas Island, but Immigration Minister Scott Morrison denied that these incidents included suicide attempts.

Regional allies, including Indonesia and China, have critiqued Australia’s approach to asylum seekers, and the UNHCR issued statements condemning the return of the Sri Lankans as well as the videoconferencing interview process. Amidst the criticism, Prime Minister Tony Abbott reiterated that his government would continue to intercept and return asylum seekers arriving by boat, and deny resettlement to those determined to be genuine refugees.

Sources:

Pressured Abbott Defends Australia's Asylum Policy, 9 July 2014, by Rob Taylor for the Wall Street Journal, http://online.wsj.com/articles/pressured-abbott-defends-australias-asylum-policy-1404899470

Australia's asylum policy at sea 'may violate international law,' 11 July 2014, Deutsche Welle, http://www.dw.de/australias-asylum-policy-at-sea-may-violate-international-law/a-17779277