Sri Lankan asylum seekers 'trained to drive orange lifeboats' | Asia Pacific

Sri Lankan asylum seekers 'trained to drive orange lifeboats'

Sri Lankan asylum seekers 'trained to drive orange lifeboats'

Updated 4 August 2014, 11:45 AEST

They were held at sea for almost a month.

Transferred to the Australian mainland for a few days. And now they're on the remote Pacific island of Nauru.

There are also claims that the group of 157 Sri Lankan asylum seekers at the centre of an Australian High Court battle, were almost sent back to India on orange lifeboats.

Refugee advocates and human rights lawyers say nine men were taught to pilot the boats and told they'd be dropped off hours from the Indian coast.

All this, amid fresh claims about the way the asylum seekers were treated.

Reporter: James Glenday

Speakers: Trevor Grant, Tamil Refugee Council; Hugh De Kretser, Executive Director of the Human Rights Law Centre

JAMES GLENDAY: Refugee advocates have been trying to get in contact with the Sri Lankan men, women and children for weeks.

Trevor Grant from the Tamil Refugee Council says he finally had some success late yesterday.

And claims he was given a detailed account about the group's time on board an Australian Customs ship.

TREVOR GRANT: Nine of the men were actually instructed by Customs officials on how to drive the orange lifeboats that were on there.

JAMES GLENDAY: Mr Grant says he spoke by phone to a 34 year old man, who is now on Nauru.

He didn't want the man's name released publicly.

TREVOR GRANT: He said they were told by Customs officers to be prepared to be put- the whole 157, to be prepared to be put on the boats at any time. He said they were shown a map and on the map was pointed out a city on the south coast of India called Kanyakumari and he said they told us that in five hours you'll see the shore.

JAMES GLENDAY: He said the man claimed fathers could only see their children every three or four days. The group didn't get enough food, clothing or sanitary pads, and were told they had no choice but to get on the life boats when the time came.

TREVOR GRANT: He indicated to us the instruction was fairly minimal and the idea of them being in charge of these boats for five hours on the Indian Ocean was a very scary prospect.

JAMES GLENDAY: Orange life boats are a key part of the Government's plan for turning back asylum seekers, though their use is always shrouded in secrecy.

Lawyers are challenging the Commonwealth in the High Court over the way the Sri Lankans were first intercepted and then treated.

Hugh De Kretser, the Executive Director of the Human Rights Law Centre, says several of the asylum seekers have told him almost exactly the same story about the lifeboats.

HUGH DE KRETSER: What we have, I think for the first time, is good first hand evidence of the human cost of this operation in action.

JAMES GLENDAY: He believes the asylum seekers still have a case against the Commonwealth even though they've now been taken to Nauru to have their claims processed.

And says he's only speaking publicly about their plight to shed light on the Government's policy.

HUGH DE KRETSER: I can categorically say we are acting in the best interests of our client.

JAMES GLENDAY: Did this life boat training happen before the High Court case action was launched?

HUGH DE KRETSER: No, the High Court proceeding was on foot. So again, you have to ask the question, is the Government seeking to side-step the scrutiny of the court systems for its desperate actions to prevent boats from arriving in Australia?

JAMES GLENDAY: But the Government says its actions are working.

The 157 passengers are the first to be transferred to Immigration authorities in nearly seven months.

In comparison, more than 4000 seekers arrived by boat in July last year.

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