Sri Lankan asylum seekers may face more weeks at sea | Asia Pacific

Sri Lankan asylum seekers may face more weeks at sea

Sri Lankan asylum seekers may face more weeks at sea

Updated 9 July 2014, 12:13 AEST

More than 150 Sri Lankan asylum seekers face the prospect of weeks in limbo on the high seas, while the Australian High Court decides their fate.

Dozens of children are among those on board an Australian Customs ship in the Indian Ocean and the United Nations says it's "deeply disturbed" the group might be sent back home.

It's now calling for a full judicial review, but there's no suggestion the Australian Government is about to back down and end the saga.

As it struggles in the polls, comparisons are already being drawn with the Howard Government's Tampa crisis in 2001 - when it refused the Norwegian freighter carrying rescued asylum seekers from entering Australian waters.

Reporter: James Glenday

Speakers: Ravina Shamdasani, spokeswoman, UNHCR; Julie Bishop, Australian foreign minister; Sarah Hanson-Young, Greens senator

JAMES GLENDAY: In the Sri Lankan city of Galle, 41 asylum seekers were brought to court late yesterday. Their crime? Leaving the country illegally on a boat. Their hopes of a better life were dashed after they were intercepted by Australian authorities and sent home.

(Sound of man speaking)

This man says his son and other relatives were just trying to get work.

The five organisers now face up to five years in jail.

But was the process of sending them back legal? As lawyers scramble to save another group of 153 Sri Lankans from a similar fate, the High Court has been asked to decide if the Government is fulfilling its international obligations and properly considering the group's asylum claims.

RAVINA SHAMDASANI: We find this to be an unacceptable situation. It seems unrealistic to expect that their claims would have been adequately assessed.

JAMES GLENDAY: Ravina Shamdasani is a spokeswoman for the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights. She says she's worried about what will happen to the people on the boat.

The High Court could take up to 21 days to hold another hearing, raising the prospect the group could face weeks at sea in legal limbo.

RAVINA SHAMDASANI: We call upon the Government to urgently find principled solutions that are in line with their obligations under international human rights law, including the right to seek asylum, including the right to health, to physical and mental health, for these asylum seekers as well.

JAMES GLENDAY: So, essentially don't leave them on the boat?

RAVINA SHAMDASANI: Mmm, indeed.

JAMES GLENDAY: But there's no suggestion the group will be taken anywhere else in the interim.

The Immigration Minister Scott Morrison is today handing over two retired Customs patrol boats to the Sri Lankan government in Colombo and was unavailable for interview, while Foreign Minister Julie Bishop is saying little.

JULIE BISHOP: As a lawyer I know that you don't provide a running commentary on a court case that's still underway.

JAMES GLENDAY: A few politicians and commentators are already making historical comparisons. The Tampa asylum seeker stand-off worked politically for John Howard in 2001 but the Oceanic Viking saga may have been the beginning of the end for Kevin Rudd in 2009.

SARAH HANSON-YOUNG: It is Tony Abbott's Tampa and together with the secrecy, you've got to wonder whether it's Scott Morrison's children overboard.

JAMES GLENDAY: Greens Senator Sarah Hanson-Young believes the Prime Minister and the Government are weighing up how the issue will play politically alongside the practicality of keeping so many people at sea.

SARAH HANSON-YOUNG: This is interesting in terms of the idea of a boat holding hundreds of asylum seekers caught out on the high seas and yet the Government of the day doing everything they can not to give people the protection and basic decency that they deserve.

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