It was an ordeal they would never want to face again. A group of 41 Sri Lankan asylum seekers who were returned by Australia said they were given shabby treatment at sea by the Australians before they were handed over to the navy.
The boat had departed to Australia from Batticaloa when it was stopped at sea by the Australian authorities.The asylum seekers were eventually transferred to the Sri Lankan navy who in turn handed them over to the police for legal action.
The Galle Court last week remanded five people who were among the 41 asylum seekers returned by Australia while the rest were given bail.
Epa Arunashantha, a lawyer who appeared in the case said that Galle Magistrate U.S. Kalansuriya had freed all the children while the remaining passengers of the boat were given bail. Five people were remanded on suspicion of being involved in human smuggling.
A son of one asylum seeker said that his father had left home saying he was going for some construction work but later they found out he had boarded a boat and left for Australia.
On Monday the police had contacted him and told him to appear in Court the next day to pay the money required to free his father on bail. The mother of a young boy said that her son had sold his motorbike to make the journey to Australia and now he is left with nothing.
“We had no proper food. They just gave us leftovers. They kept us on the boat without taking us ashore,” said Damithy Caldera, a 48 year old asylum seeker from Anuradhapura, who boarded the boat from Batticaloa. Caldera said that there were some children on the boat as well and the children were also ill treated.
The Navy Offshore Patrol Vessel, SLNS Samudura brought the 41 Australia-bound Sri Lankan illegal immigrants to the Galle Harbour on Monday. They were handed over to SLNS Samudura by Australia on Sunday morning.
Meanwhile the Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR) says any returns, even from the high seas or in the territorial seas of other states, must be carried out in accordance with international law, under which refoulement and collective expulsions are strictly prohibited.
Meanwhile Amnesty International called for urgent action to stop the return of 153 asylum seekers travelling by boat from India and intercepted by the Australian Navy. On 28 June, the boat travelling from India carrying 153 Sri Lankan asylum seekers, reportedly residents of Tamil Nadu in India, contacted refugee advocates and journalists in Australia to say they were nearing Christmas Island, a remote territory of Australia.
Shortly afterwards, communication with the boat was lost, as it was intercepted by the Australian Navy. On 8 July, an injunction by the High Court of Australia delayed the forcible transfer of the asylum seekers to the Sri Lankan authorities, pending further investigation of the lawfulness of this action. The affidavits submitted by the Australian government were the first admission that they are detaining the 153 asylum seekers at sea.
Morrison Rejects “Offensive” Claims
Australian Immigration Minister Scott Morrison, while in Sri Lanka last week to commission two vessels gifted to Sri Lanka, responded to questions posed on the Sri Lankan asylum boats in Australian custody, one which was returned to Sri Lanka.
Transcript of the question and answer session:
Q: Mr Morrison can we just get the latest from you in terms of Australian Government comment on the 153 alleged asylum seekers please?
A: Well those matters are currently before Courts in Australia so I don’t intend to go into any further discussion on that other than has been provided in the Court, but can I say this about what I’ve had the privilege of being here for today: Today is a symbol of the strong partnership that exists between Australia and Sri Lanka in dealing with people smuggling.
The message for anyone who was thinking that they can go to Australia illegally by boat is that the way is closed and that way has been closed by Australia and Sri Lanka working in strong and close partnership together. These 2 Bay-class vessels that formerly served within the Border Protection Command of Australia and now serving with the Sri Lankan Navy are there for a very straightforward task, and that is to stop people smuggling.
We thank the Sri Lankan Government and the Sri Lankan Navy and all the other authorities here for the incredible work they’ve done to stop the scourge of people smuggling. Now that work will continue. Any venture that thinks they can get to Australia, well I think a very clear message has been sent, particularly in the last few days, that that venture will not prevail.
Q: The 153 people still at sea – are you trying to send them to Sri Lanka?
A: Well, I’ve already given my comment on the matters that are before the Court and I don’t intend to expand on them.
Q: But Minister despite the provision of gifting of patrol boats, ramping up of patrols in Australian waters as well, it’s a huge challenge isn’t it? A struggle for both sides?
A: Well what I know is that the resolve of the Australian and Sri Lankan Governments to stop people smuggling is stronger and greater than the people smugglers. For more than six months now, coming up to seven months, there has not been a single successful maritime people smuggling venture to Australia from the subcontinent or from Indonesia or anywhere else and that is a demonstration of the resolve of both governments. That resolve is demonstrated here today and that resolve will continue and it is that resolve that is stopping the people smugglers.
Q: Yesterday Sri Lankan … [inaudible]
A: Well, I mean that’s speculating on matters that are still before the Courts in Australia. But the Australian Government’s policies on these matters have been very, very clear from the outset of our operations and those operations have been very successful and it is our intent that they will continue to be successful. That’s why I send the message to anyone here who may think of getting on a people smuggling voyage to Australia: don’t believe the lies that the people smugglers tell you. They will not prevail. They will not succeed. They will take your money and they will walk away from you. They are not to be trusted. And they will not be successful because of the resolve of the Australian and the Sri Lankan Governments working together in partnership.
Q: Is it true that the Sri Lankan Government has rejected your request to accept those 153 Sri Lankans?
A: Once again, you’re speculating.
Q: But this is a comment from the Sri Lankan Ambassador in Australia Minister?
A: Minister Morrison: What I’m saying is that ventures that are the subject matters before the Australian Courts are matters that we will address in those courts. We have always maintained a very strong process for how we manage communications regarding our operations. Now, that has been an important part of our process in our success.
That communication protocol has been put in place by Lieutenant-General Campbell who heads the Joint Agency Task Force in Australia that has command over these matters. Now, as a Minister of the government I am going to adhere to those protocols because they have been very important to the success of those operations.
But I’ll stress this, the Australian Government takes very seriously its responsibilities, as does the Sri Lankan Government, to people’s safety and to the various obligations that we have under the various Conventions that we’re a signatory to and the Australian Government rejects any suggestions we’ve acted contrary to any of those obligations that we have. Our Officers, who serve out there, like the officers who serve out here, understand their obligations about safety of life at sea and other matters and they act in accordance with those obligations.
They are professional people who do a difficult job, sometimes a dangerous job, and it is these men and women who are stopping the scourge of people smuggling to Australia, could I remind the people here, has cost the lives of almost 1,200 people. Buying a ticket on a boat to Australia could be buying a ticket to a watery grave. That is the real prospect that can be faced. That is why people should not get on these boats. You put yourself at great risk. You shouldn’t believe the lies of the people smugglers and the Australian Government and the Sri Lankan Government will prevent you from getting there.
Q: The 41 people who were returned to Sri Lanka on Monday by the Australian Navy, are you concerned that they will be mistreated by Sri Lankan authorities?
A: No, I’m not and we’re relying on the same assurances on those matters as the previous government relied upon. I understand former Senator Carr, the former Foreign Minister, has made some comments on these matters in Australia today and I simply echo the points that he has made, that we don’t have those concerns and they are based on the assurances that the previous government also relied upon.
Q: What do you have to say about allegations that asylum seekers were badly treated in Australia?
A: I find those allegations offensive and I reject them absolutely.