July 07, Geneva: The United nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) today expressed deep concern after Australia announced that it has returned 41 asylum-seekers to Sri Lanka after intercepting them at sea.
The UNHCR in a release said today they are also concerned over the fate of the 153 Sri Lankan asylum seekers now subject to an Australian High Court injunction on their return.
The refugee agency said it understands that the Australian authorities used "enhanced screening procedures" as a basis for determining whether the 41 individuals involved raised claims for protection which required further consideration but without further information UNHCR is not in a position, at this time, to confirm whether they were in accordance with international law.
The office of Australian Minister of Immigration and Border Protection Scott Morrison said all persons intercepted and returned were subjected to an enhanced screening process to identify any person who may need to be referred to a further determination process.
UNHCR has previously made known its concerns to Australia about its enhanced screening procedures and their non- compliance 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," the refugee agency said.
The Australian Government however, said it will continue to act in accordance with its international obligations, including applicable international conventions and to protect the safety of life at sea.
"The principle of non-refoulement (the prohibition on return to threats to life or freedom) in the 1951 Refugee Convention and more broadly under customary international law is clear: it applies wherever an asylum-seeker is found and to whatever manner the expulsion or return is carried out, including during interception and other sea operations," the UN agency said.
UNHCR said it does not object to the returns of persons properly found not to be in need of international protection, but considers anyone claiming asylum has a right to have their case properly assessed by qualified personnel in accordance with the necessary procedural and legal safeguards.
Australian authorities said only one out of the 41 asylum seekers needed further processing and he was recommended to be sent to an offshore detention center. However, that person, a Sinhalese has opted to return to Sri Lanka with others.