Australian officials are secretly screening out asylum seekers who are still at sea via video link as two boatloads of would-be refugees are being transferred at sea into Sri Lankan custody.
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Backlash over missing asylum seeker boat
"We are breaching our central obligation under the refugee convention" says lawyer Julian Burnside, after two boatloads of asylum seekers were allegedly screened and handed over to the Sri Lankan navy by Australia.
A senior Sri Lankan naval official said the asylum seekers would be transferred to their navy. However another Sri Lankan official denied any transfer was taking place.
Fairfax Media understands asylum seekers are being asked just four basic questions before their claim for asylum is considered. Refugee lawyers and advocates say the screening process could result in Australia being in breach of international law.
''The screening process has real dangers,'' said lawyer Julian Burnside. ''If a person is screened out by those four cursory questions and if the person is a refugee then we will be guilty of refoulement. It is very clear the department is screening people to get them out as fast as possible and not with a view to assess whether they are refugees.''
This is likely to be the first time asylum seekers who arrive by boat have been returned to a country that is not Indonesia under the Abbott government.
A joint Sri Lankan and Australian navy operation was on Wednesday believed to be transferring the two boatloads of asylum seekers - including 153 on one boat and another 50 on another vessel - after they were both intercepted by the Australian navy boats HMAS Perth and HMAS Wollongong and then moved to Customs boats - the Ocean Protector and the Triton. Immigration Minister Scott Morrison has refused to give any information about the joint operation.
Sri Lankan navy spokesperson Commander Kosala Warnakulasooriya told Fairfax Media that no refugees had been handed over to any Sri Lankan navy personnel. ''We have no information regarding this. All we have seen is what is in the media. Therefore we deny that any such has happened.''
Government sources would only say that the navy was acting in accordance with its international obligations and with the obligation to protect life at sea.
The 50 asylum seekers who were on board the second boat, which is believed to have departed from Indonesia, were asked four basic questions via a teleconference on the weekend with immigration officials in Sydney and Melbourne.
They included their name, country of origin, where they had come from and why they had left.
Another asylum seeker boat, which held 153 passengers who were also Sri Lankan Tamils, has since been transferred to a navy boat.
''Assessing people's asylum claims after a few rudimentary questions by teleconference is not only highly disturbing but probably unlawful,'' said director of Human Rights Watch Elaine Pearson.
''Especially given Sri Lanka's atrocious human rights record, officials should be giving people space to make claims in a fair and safe way, not pressuring them to answer questions at sea straight after a traumatising journey.''
Greens immigration spokeswoman Sarah Hanson-Young said the reports were ''extremely concerning''.
''There is no way that people can have their claims for protection properly assessed by immigration officials over the phone and when they are in the middle of the ocean,'' she said.
"Not only is this a breach of international law, it is dangerous and puts people's lives at risk.''
Indian authorities have confirmed that a fishing trawler containing an estimated 153 Tamil refugees left the Indian union territory of Puducherry on June 13 bound for Australia.
Authorities believe the 25-metre vessel was being piloted by a former Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam naval commander with the expertise necessary to navigate a direct route to Australia, bypassing other countries such as Indonesia.
It is understood that after leaving India, the trawler rendezvoused with a boat from Sri Lanka at which point the remainder of passengers joined the vessel.
A senior Indian coast guard official who spoke to Fairfax Media but asked for anonymity, said the investigations had revealed that the boat had been bought several months ago and that the plan to take the refugees to Australia had been developed over several months.
''This was a sophisticated plan,'' the official said. ''They had a lot of equipment on board that are difficult to obtain in India.''