The father of a three-year-old Sri Lankan girl on a missing boat of asylum seekers has pleaded with Immigration Minister Scott Morrison to reveal the fate of the 153 who were on board.
Lawyers fight for Sri Lankan asylum seekers
The group of Tamil asylum seekers have already been recognised as refugees by Indian authorities and should be brought to Australia, lawyer George Newhouse tells 2UE's Andrew Voss.
His plea came as lawyers representing some of those on the boat were granted a High Court injunction on Monday night preventing them being transferred to Sri Lanka before a hearing on Tuesday afternoon.
The father, who claims all on board would face persecution if returned to Sri Lanka said: “I am desperate to know where my family is. I can’t function at all not knowing.”
Speaking to Fairfax Media from Europe, the father of three-year-old Febrina said he had had no contact with his daughter or wife for 10 days.
“I am waiting every day to hear from her, I live every day with that hope. I want to know what has happened to her, and I hope nobody is frightening my daughter.”
He has publicly asked the Australian government to reveal where the asylum seekers are and where they will be taken.
It is understood the 153 asylum seekers, all Tamils, and including 37 children, were intercepted in the Indian Ocean more than a week ago and taken on board the customs vessel the Oceanic Protector.
Febrina’s father, who spoke on condition of anonymity, said he and his wife had separately fled the north of Sri Lanka after being harassed and persecuted by security forces.
“I was suspected of supporting the Tamil Tigers, so I was arrested and tortured by police. I fled the island. My wife also had problems from the police and military. Neither of us could live there.”
Three-year-old Febrina has never been to Sri Lanka. She was born in a refugee camp in southern India.
“She has never seen the island. She has been in a refugee camp her whole life. But because her parents are refugees from Sri Lanka, the Indian government says she is a Sri Lankan citizen.”
Febrina’s father said if those on board the boat were returned, they would face retribution.
“I am certain they will face torture, they might even get killed. The Sri Lankan government does not forget the past. They will come for them.”
A Sri Lankan police spokesman confirmed all of the 41 asylum seekers returned on Sunday would face the Galle Magistrates court, charged with leaving the country illegally.
“They will be charged under the Immigrants and Emigrants Act. The sentence for those who are proved to have left illegally is two years of rigorous imprisonment and a fine,” Ajith Rohana said.
Febrina’s father disagreed with Prime Minister Tony Abbott’s assessment that Sri Lanka was a country “at peace”.
“While it may seem the country is peaceful, many Tamil people live in fear. Atrocities are taking place and we cannot live in Sri Lanka.”
Gillian Triggs, the president of the Australian Human Rights Commission, announced plans to investigate the treatment of children on the boat if they were transferred to an Australian vessel before being returned to Sri Lanka.
Thirty-seven children are believed to have been on board the boat, which has not been heard from since Saturday, June 28, and left Pondicherry in southern India, on June 13.
Lawyers representing some of the asylum seekers on the boat were granted a High Court injunction late on Monday preventing them being transferred to Sri Lanka until proceedings resume on Tuesday afternoon.
Professor Triggs expressed alarm that the “enhanced screening” process used to reject the claims of another boat of 41 Sri Lankans, who were transferred at sea to Sri Lankan authorities, appeared in breach of international law.
All men, 37 Sinhalese and four Tamil, have being handed over to the Criminal Investigation Division of Sri Lanka police and will face a magistrate's court in coming days.
Professor Triggs’ concerns were echoed by more than 50 legal scholars from 17 Australian universities, who released a statement declaring Australia's actions in clear violation of international law.
“We are profoundly concerned by reports that asylum seekers are being subjected to rapid and inadequate screening interviews at sea and returned to Sri Lanka. This raises a real risk of refoulement in breach of Australia’s obligations under international refugee and human rights law," their statement said.
A defiant Mr Morrison maintained the enhanced screening process complied with Australia’s international obligations and was the same process used by the former Labor government.
Mr Morrison confirmed early yesterday that the 41 had been subjected to enhanced screening before being handed over to Sri Lankan authorities, but refused to comment on the fate of the second boat. He said that in one case it was recommended that ‘‘further determination’’ be made, but the Sinhalese man concerned requested to depart with the others.
Asked by Sydney broadcaster Ray Hadley if the 153 on the other boat would not be coming to Australia, he replied: “No one is coming to Australia Ray. You can certainly deduce that.”
Labor immigration spokesman Richard Marles maintained that the enhanced screening process employed by the former government would have involved the asylum seekers’ claims being assessed on Christmas Island.
“Labor has concerns about the integrity of this new method of processing people at sea en masse and how this complies with Australia’s international obligations under relevant conventions,” Mr Marles said.
The secrecy surrounding the interception of the two boats will be debated by the new Senate on Tuesday, with the Greens moving a motion on Wednesday demanding more information and calling for an end to "current screening and transfer practices".
Two crossbench senators have signalled that they will not support a motion condemning the government's policies.
"We have two options when it comes to asylum seekers," Family First's Bob Day told Fairfax Media. "You have a bad option and a worse option. Go for the bad option, there are no good options."
Liberal Democrat David Leyonhjelm said he would not support any motion criticising the government for individual actions, labelling it "partisan politics" that he did not want to participate in. But he would support a motion for more information and transparency.
"I will support attempts to improve and increase transparency. I think that's a good principle to pursue," he said.
Senator Leyonhjelm said he did not like the government's model because it gave people hope that they could "come in the backdoor".
Palmer United Party leader Clive Palmer said on Monday that if people seeking refuge had been returned by force to a country they were fleeing from it would be a breach of the refugee convention.
“My criticism is, at the moment, we don't know and the Minister for Immigration needs to make it clear to the Australian public what's actually happened,” he said.
Professor Triggs said she would examine treatment of any children transferred to an Australian customs or Navy vessel before being handed to Sri Lankan authorities.
She said asylum seekers were entitled to ‘‘proper process’’ and impartial review of negative assessments if requested. ‘‘Enhanced screening appears not to meet Australia’s obligations because there is no impartial capacity to have negative assessment reconsidered,’’ she said.
Sri Lanka’s Commander Kosala Warnakulasooriya told Fairfax Media the 41 who had been handed over were safe and in good health. ‘‘This was a very orderly transfer, we have done our job,” he said.
Mr Morrison is expected in Sri Lanka on Tuesday night for talks with local officials including External Affairs Minister G.L. Peiris.
“Relations between our countries are at their very best, and we are making appropriate preparations for his visit,” Minister for Mass Media and Information Dr Keheliya Rambukwella told Fairfax Media.