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The Australian government is refusing to comment on reports circulating on Christmas Island that 153 Tamil asylum seekers have been handed over to the Sri Lankan navy.
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Asylum seekers: why the secrecy?
Labor MP Alannah MacTiernan say the whole of Christmas Island knew that asylum boats had been intercepted on the weekend - she questions why the government is being so tight-lipped about their fate.
The asylum seekers, who have not communicated with civilians since Saturday morning, were on a boat allegedly intercepted by the Australian navy near Christmas Island, president of the Shire of Christmas Island Gordon Thomson said. They were then handed over to Sri Lanka’s military.
Refugee advocates lost contact with the boat on Saturday morning, sparking fears the phone on board had been confiscated.
A spokesman for Immigration Minister Scott Morrison said the government’s policy was that it did not confirm nor otherwise comment on reports of on-water activities in relation to Operation Sovereign Borders.
A spokesman for the Sri Lankan military late on Tuesday denied the reports. ‘‘We are not aware of any arrangements of the Australian Navy handing over refugees, to Sri Lankan Navy,’’ he told ABC Radio.
But human rights lawyers have been desperately trying to contact the asylum seekers, saying it is profoundly concerning that the plight of these people remains in a shroud of secrecy.
Fairfax Media understands a group of lawyers have obtained four names and the dates of birth of passengers believed to be on the vessel, which had spent two weeks travelling from India.
The existence of a second vessel carrying 50 asylum seekers has not been confirmed, but Fairfax Media understands it too may have departed from somewhere other than Indonesia.
Human rights lawyer David Manne said Australians had the right to know whether the Abbott government was upholding its international obligations in providing protection to people needing protection.
"These people appear to be unable to access basic information about their rights and we don’t know where they are,’’ Mr Manne, the executive director of the Refugee and Immigration Legal Centre, said.
"They can’t get in contact with anyone and critical questions about their fate continue to be raised and remain unanswered.’’
Director of the Human Rights Legal centre Daniel Webb agreed, saying that a government confident its actions were lawful and decent shouldn’t go to such extraordinary lengths to prevent scrutiny.
"There are serious questions about whether our government is complying with domestic and international laws. The answers to those questions depend on the facts but our government won’t give us any,’’ Mr Webb said.
On Tuesday, Mr Morrison would not take questions from reporters in Canberra after he gave a pep talk to Customs officers, congratulating them on the "difficult’’ job they perform.
"We know the work we ask you to do is difficult, the decisions we ask you to take in the context of the policies can be hard but the border protection command has never flinched,’’ he told Customs officers.
Prime Minister Tony Abbott also refused to answer questions about the possible return of the Tamil asylum seekers to Sri Lanka, only repeating that the government was "stopping the boats’’.
"I’m not going to comment on the operational details of what happens on the water but obviously we have been successful up till now,’’ he told ABC radio.
Greens immigration spokeswoman Sarah Hanson-Young said the government should be doing everything to offer protection to these people.
"I am extremely concerned about the children who were on this boat, the minister must confirm what is happening to these children," she said.
"We shouldn’t be deporting these people, we should be assessing their claims here in Australia."
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