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The Abbott government has confirmed that 41 Sri Lankan asylum seekers who attempted to reach Australia by boat have been handed over to Sri Lankan authorities.
Immigration Minister Scott Morrison released a statement on Monday saying that the asylum seekers, whose boat was intercepted in late June, were returned to Sri Lanka on Sunday.
Prime Minister Tony Abbott speaks with Sri Lankan President Mahinda Rajapaksa. Australia has returned 41 asylum seekers to Sri Lankan custody despite Australia accusing the country of state-sponsored torture. Photo: Chris Jackson/Getty Images
According to Mr Morrison, 37 of the returned asylum seekers were from the Sinhalese majority and four were Tamil Sri Lankan nationals. Only one of the asylum seekers, who was Sinhalese, passed screening to seek asylum but chose to return to Sri Lanka with the other asylum seekers.
Mr Morrison has not commented on the status of another boat of asylum seekers, said to carrying about 150 asylum seekers, which was reportedly intercepted by Australian authorities around a week ago.
The returns come despite Australia accusing Sri Lanka of state-sponsored torture, abuse and mistreatment of citizens.
Immigration Minister Scott Morrison has confirmed some asylum seekers screened at sea have been returned to Sri Lanka. He will visit the country on Wednesday. Photo: Alex Ellinghausen
On 2GB radio Mr Morrison said the other asylum seeker boat was not in Australian waters, but refused to provide further details. Doing so would place on-water operations at risk, Mr Morrison said.
Mr Morrison said the safe return of the 41 Sri Lankan asylum seekers undercut many ''shrill and hysterical'' claims over the past week that Australia was mistreating asylum seekers.
''We haven't had one death at sea since the turnback policy was introduced,'' he said. ''The policies we're implementing are saving lives.''
The asylum seekers were transferred to a Sri Lankan navy vessel off the Port of Batticaloa on Sunday.
Mr Morrison said the asylum seekers, described in his statement as “potential illegal maritime arrivals”, were returned following an enhanced screening process.
Fairax Media reported last week that Australian officials were screening asylum seekers at sea via teleconference by asking four basic questions: the asylum seeker’s name, their country of origin, where they had come from and why they had left.
Mr Morrison told radio on Monday that the ''enhanced screening process'', which has been criticised by asylum seeker advocates and the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, was trumpeted by the previous Labor government.
In his statement Mr Morrison said: ''The Australian government will continue to act in accordance with our international obligations, including applicable international conventions and to protect the safety of life at sea.
''At the same time will not allow people smugglers to try and exploit and manipulate Australia's support of these conventions as a tool to undermine Australia's strong border protection regime that is stopping the boats and the deaths at sea.
''Accordingly, the government will continue to reject the public and political advocacy of those who have sought to pressure the government into a change of policy.”
He said the government was grateful to Sri Lankan authorities for their assistance in tackling people smuggling and that it looks forward to continued co-operation with Sri Lanka.
The move has been condemned by Green immigration spokeswoman Sarah Hanson-Young and Labor has also criticised the government saying its lack of transparency displayed contempt for the public.
Former Liberal prime minister Malcolm Fraser was also scathing of the government, saying handing asylum seekers back to Sri Lanka at sea was redolent of handing Jews over to the Nazis in the 1930s.
Senator Hanson-Young said she remained concerned about the fate of the asylum seekers sent to Sri Lanka even though most of them are Sinhalese.
''How can we know these people are going to be ok?'' she told ABC radio on Monday..
''The United Nations have criticised the screening of people out on the high seas as the government has done.
''There is nothing legal about the way [the government] has conducted these operations. They fall far short of our international obligations.''
Labor's immigration spokeman Richard Marles said Labor was concerend about the "integrity" of processing people at sea and en masse and how it complies with Australia's international obligations.
''Scott Morrison must explain what process is underway to determine the refugee status of another reported 153 persons aboard a second vessel that was detected near Christmas Island,'' he said in a statement.
''It is not good enough for Scott Morrison to leave the country without providing a transparent account of what has occurred on our seas over the last week and a half.''
Greens leader Christine Milne said the government’s actions were against international law and decency.
''It's absolutely appalling,'' she told reporters on Monday.
Independent senator Nick Xenophon says he is ''uneasy'' with the government's actions and wants the returned Sri Lankans monitored to ensure they do not come to any harm.