In a dramatic turn of events overnight the High Court has issued an interim injunction, temporarily preventing the return of 153 asylum seekers to the Sri Lankan Government.
Despite confusion about the location and status of the boat carrying the asylum seekers, the High Court yesterday agreed to grant the injunction and hear the case later today, allowing lawyers the opportunity to argue that returning the boat to the Sri Lankan Government would be in breach of Australia’s Migration Act.
George Newhouse, one of the lawyers acting for the group, told ABC’s Lateline that the injunction was sought to prevent the asylum seekers on the vessel from being delivered back to the people trying to harm them.
“Those asylum seekers were very concerned they would be handed over to their torturers and their persecutors and we sought an urgent injunction to stop that form happening,” he said.
The case comes after days of speculation about two boats allegedly intercepted by the Australian Government. Despite widespread reporting about the boats, and the perfunctory processing of refugee claims of those on board, Immigration Minister Scott Morrison had refused to confirm the existence of either vessel until yesterday.
In response, Tamil groups have accused the Minister of “disappearing” those on board.
In fresh revelations, the Tamil Refugee Council has released the names of several asylum seekers it believes to be on the boat currently subject to the Court’s injunction, including a three-year-old girl named Febrina.
A release issued by the Council quotes a relative of the child making a plea to Morrison to explain where the boat is, saying: “I am desperate to know where my family is. I can’t function at all not knowing. I know all of them would be in very big trouble if sent back to Sri Lanka.”
The boat carrying Febrina and 152 others is believed to have left India where, according to the Tamil Refugee Council, it collected Tamils who had been waiting in a refugee camp.
On Monday, Morrison announced that a separate boat carrying 41 people had been returned to the Sri Lankan Government. In an interview with radio station 2GB, Morrison said only four on board that vessel were Tamil and that the only person found to have a legitimate refugee claim had volunteered to return to Sri Lanka.
It has now been reported that those returned on the first boat will face two years imprisonment when they return home. It is a crime in Sri Lanka to leave the country unauthorised.
Speaking on the ABC’s 7:30 program, refugee lawyer David Manne said there were serious flaws in the way this group had been processed and that their future was now uncertain.
“It’s actually very difficult to know exactly what will happen next, and that is part of the problem in Sri Lanka,” he said.
Manne said that although the country’s civil war was officially over, cases of arbitrary imprisonment, torture, rape and disappearance continued to occur against minority groups and that this was part of a “systematic” denial of rights.
Those returned on the first vessel were allegedly asked just four questions in the process of determining their claims.
Before the new Senate began sitting yesterday, independent and Greens members expressed their concern to the waiting media.
“To send them back to the place where they have alleged persecution, and where there is a real risk of that persecutions happening again, that’s very concerning,” independent Senator Nick Xenophon said.
Greens Leader Christine Milne claimed the move was in breach of international law, an allegation refuted by Morrison but backed by 53 Australia legal scholars, who have written to the Immigration Minister.
The United Nations is currently trying to investigate the Sri Lankan government in relation to the already well-documented war crimes committed during the country’s 37-year long civil war.
Current president Mahinda Rajapaksa, who oversaw the final years of the conflict which resulted in some of the most serious civilian massacres of the war, is now accused of preventing the UN from carrying out its investigation.
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