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The United Nations has expressed ''profound concern'' over reports that Australia was poised to hand Sri Lankan asylum seekers back to the country's navy on Thursday after only the briefest refugee assessment.
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"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.
For the first time, the Sri Lankan government confirmed that failed asylum seekers would be switched straight onto its navy ships at sea, even as the Australian government dug in on its hardline refusal to provide any information.
Fairfax Media confirmed that refugee assessments of the more than 200 Sri Lankans trying to reach Australia on two separate boats have been cut back to four questions, prompting dire warnings by international law experts that Australia risked breaching international obligations.
In a rare statement, the UN High Commission for Refugees said the organisation viewed ''with profound concern recent reports in the media and from the community in relation to the interception at sea of individuals who may be seeking Australia's protection''.
The organisation stressed that ''requests for international protection should be considered within the territory of the intercepting state, consistent with fundamental refugee-protection principles.
It added that asylum seekers should be ''properly and individually screened for protection needs'' through a ''through a substantive and fair refugee status determination procedure''.
Keheliya Rambukwella, Sri Lanka's Media and Information Minister, said a transfer at sea would take place. ''They will be accepted and received by the [Sri Lankan] navy and the normal procedures will take place from there onward,'' he said.
Fairfax Media can reveal that the number of questions being asked of the Sri Lankans to establish whether they are genuine refugees has been slashed fivefold - from 19 to just four - a move that has drawn heavy fire from international-law experts.
Don Rothwell, a professor of international law at the Australian National University, branded the development ''unprecedented'' and said it took the tough Operation Sovereign Border approach to a new level.
''It is suggestive of a minimalist approach in compliance with Australia's refugees obligations,'' Professor Rothwell said.
Fairfax Media has obtained a list of 19 questions that are usually asked of Sri Lankan asylum seekers who arrive in Australia. This is in stark contrast to the four basic questions asked of the 50 asylum seekers on one of the vessels believed to have been intercepted by Australian authorities at the weekend - their name, country of origin, why they came and where they departed from.
Professor Jane McAdam, from the Kaldor centre for international refugee law at the University of NSW, said this did not comply with international law.
''You can't just decide a case within the hour,'' she said.
''And we also know that people are very scared and are fearful of authority.''
A professor of international law at the University of Sydney, Ben Saul, said refugee convention stated officials had to have a ''sufficiently robust and protective determination procedure''.
Immigration Minister Scott Morrison refused to confirm or deny the existence of the two boats. ''You're making presumptions about instances that I can't comment on,'' he said.
About 60 refugee activists rallied outside the front of the immigration detention centre in Broadmeadows on Friday to front Mr Morrison, who was scheduled to visit but did not show up.
Police informed protesters that the minister would not visit the centre to avoid the group, yet activists reported that refugees inside the centre were told the minister would still visit.
Lucy Honan, from the Refugee Action Collective, said Mr Morrison's silence on the status of two boatloads of asylum seekers is "flagrant disregard for the human rights convention".
"His refusal to give us information is a sign that he knows there is going to be uproar and there is uproar,'' she told Fairfax Media.
Greens senator Sarah Hanson-Young said on Thursday Mr Morrison was showing ''total contempt towards the public and the law".
"If the government believed what they were doing was legal, they wouldn't be hiding from it,'' Senator Hanson-Young said.
Prime Minister Tony Abbott said Sri Lanka was a ''peaceful country'' since its civil war ended in 2009. ''Everything we do is consistent with safety at sea and everything we do is consistent with our international obligations,'' he said.
The Department of Foreign Affairs says Australians should exercise a ''high degree of caution'' due to the ''unpredictable security environment'' in Sri Lanka.
Meanwhile, Mr Morrison has confirmed an eight-week-old Australian-born baby is among a group of 14 asylum seekers from four families sent from the South Australian Inverbrackie detention centre to Darwin.
They will be transferred to Christmas Island because they have been deemed fit to return to the island.
with AAP, Timna Jacks