By Martin Parry, AFP
SYDNEY–Australian government lawyers Tuesday said 153 Sri Lankan asylum-seekers were in custody on the high seas and agreed to give three days’ notice before handing any back to Colombo, as criticism mounted. A late-night interim injunction Monday temporarily halted the transfer of the would-be refugees from the boat, whose very existence Canberra had previously refused to confirm. Lawyers acting for about one-third of the mostly minority ethnic Tamils on board took their case to the High Court Tuesday, arguing that a transfer would be illegal and they should not be returned to Sri Lanka against their will. The court has yet to decide whether there is a case to answer. But in a submission government lawyers said the boat, which was believed to have set sail from India, was intercepted outside Australian territorial waters. Solicitor-General Justin Gleeson said this meant any claims made under the Australian Migration Act were not applicable.
But he gave an undertaking that 72 hours’ notice would be given before any of the asylum-seekers, now reportedly held on a Customs boat, were handed back to Colombo. The legal dispute, which was adjourned until Friday, came after another vessel was returned to Sri Lanka on Sunday following a week of secrecy. Critics say the asylum-seekers did not have their claims for refugee status properly assessed, with their brief screening carried out at sea via video link. The adults among the group of 41 — 28 men and four women — were charged in their homeland Tuesday with attempting to leave the country illegally, a crime punishable by up to two years in jail. A court in the southern town of Galle granted bail to 27 of them while five were remanded in custody for two weeks. Nine children were discharged. Australian Human Rights Commission chief Gillian Triggs said the screening of asylum-seekers at sea appeared to be inadequate under international law.