THE Abbott government has no intention of sending 153 asylum- seekers at the centre of a High Court challenge to Sri Lanka where Tamil refugees claim they face persecution, as fresh doubts surfaced over the route of their voyage and the identities of those on board.
After weeks of denying the boat’s existence, lawyers for the government yesterday revealed the group was being held on a Customs boat after it was intercepted outside the country’s migration zone.
Lawyers for the asylum-seekers told the High Court the boatload, which includes women and young children, came from a Tamil refugee camp in Pondicherry in southern India.
But The Australian can reveal Indian authorities have cast doubt on claims the boat left from its waters, raising questions over the fate of 93 passengers who refugee advocates say can be traced back to India’s Sri Lankan Tamil community and that of the remaining 60 whose origins are unknown.
During an urgent High Court hearing, government lawyers rejected that those onboard have any legal standing to seek asylum in Australia because they were intercepted outside Australia’s migration zone — more than 12 miles from Australian land.
The Australian understands the government has no intention of sending the boatload to Sri Lanka, nor are authorities in Colombo preparing to receive them.
Immigration Minister Scott Morrison will be in Sri Lanka today to formally hand over two Bay Class patrol boats to the Sri Lankan Navy, an event that was organised some time ago.
Those now on board the Customs boat could be transferred to the Manus Island offshore processing centre in Papua New Guinea, the Nauru centre or repatriated to India. Refugee advocates are arguing Tamils should not be returned to Sri Lanka because they fear persecution.
A separate boatload of 41 people was returned to Sri Lanka and offloaded on Monday after being transferred to a Sri Lankan navy ship at sea. Thirty-seven of those 41 were from Sri Lanka’s majority Sinhalese community, not generally thought to be at risk of persecution. Only four were Tamils.
At least one Sinhalese asylum- seeker who was offered a chance to seek asylum declined further processing. The rest of the group were screened out.
Thirty-six of the group, who had been held for questioning by Sri Lankan police for the past 24 hours, were released on bail by the Galle Magistrates Court.
Twenty-seven adults were released on a 5000 rupee ($40) cash bail and SLR100,000 surety, while nine children under 16 were released unconditionally.
A remaining five Sinhalese men, alleged to have been either crew or organisers, were remanded to reappear on July 14 where they are expected to face charges of people smuggling and other jailable offences under the country’s strict immigration laws.
Of the second boat, now the subject of the High Court challenge, refugee advocates in Australia say they have been able to identify 48 of the 153 on board as having come from India’s 60,000-odd strong, unregistered Sri Lankan Tamil refugee community, and at least 11 of those had been tortured in Sri Lanka.
The Chennai-based Organisation for Eelan Refugees Rehabilitation, which represents India’s 40,000 registered Tamil refugees living in designated camps, claims to have traced another 45 people on board the boat.
But that still leaves a question mark over the origins of 60 fellow passengers.
The organisation founder Samuel Chandrahasan said the number of passengers from south India’s refugee camps had been revised down in recent days after four families contacted the organisation to say they had opted not to join the boat and were now seeking refunds for deposits paid to people smuggling agents.
“The people we have been speaking to at the local level have taken up the position that no boat has officially sailed from India and, therefore, as far as they’re concerned no one has left from India,” Mr Chandrahasan said.
He added it was possible passengers were ferried out from Pondicherry to a mother boat anchored in international waters. The Indian High Commissioner to Australia, Biren Nanda said: “We have not received any communication from the Australian government. We have no details on the case. We have no official information either from the government or the police authorities here.’’
And Sri Lanka’s High Commissioner to Australia, Admiral Thisara Samarasinghe, said his country had no plans to accept the group, saying: “I can categorically deny and reject any plans of Sri Lanka to take over the suspected, speculated, presumed asylum- seekers coming from India.’’
Officials in Tamil Nadu, a state historically sympathetic to the plight of Sri Lankan Tamil refugees, have denied the boat left from their waters, indicating a reluctance to accept any returnees.
Sri Lankan Navy spokesman Commodore Kosala Warnakulasooriya also dismissed suggestions the boat first left from Sri Lankan waters, pointing to how heavily patrolled the maritime border has become since tensions rose over fisheries poaching.
While asylum-seekers from the camps would likely be able to produce documents proving their refugee status and Indian residency permits, those from outside the camps could struggle to prove they left from India in order to argue they should be returned there.
Before the High Court hearing in Melbourne, Tony Abbott said “the Labor Party and its activists, the Greens and their activists, they will try to disrupt the government’s policies; they will try to do things that start the boats up again because that’s in Labor’s DNA.’’
Government frontbencher Senator Michaelia Cash told the Senate “at all times this government believes it is acting in accordance with our international obligations and our obligations regarding safety at sea … the assurances that we have received from the Sri Lankan government are the same assurances as were given to the former government’’.
But Labor’s immigration spokesman Richard Marles accused Mr Morrison of risking Australia’s international reputation to protect his “political scoreboard’’.
It is understood Mr Morrison met on Monday the UN High Commissioner for Refugees regional representative Thomas Albrecht to outline Australia’s enhanced-screening processes.
The UNHCR issued a statement last night saying it “does not object to the returns of persons properly found not to be in need of international protection, but considers anyone claiming asylum has a right to have their case properly assessed by qualified personnel in accordance with the necessary procedural and legal safeguards”.