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(Sydney) – The Australian government should cease forced returns of Sri Lankan asylum seekers until they are provided fair, thorough, and transparent processing of their protection claims, Amnesty International, the Human Rights Law Centre, and Human Rights Watch said today. On November 29, 2014, Australian authorities turned over to Sri Lankan authorities a boat carrying 37 asylum seekers.

Human Rights Watch has previously documented the Sri Lankan authorities’ use of torture and rape against ethnic Tamils in detention, including those returned as failed asylum seekers from countries such as Australia.

On December 10-11, the UN High Commissioner’s Dialogue on Protection Challenges will take place in Geneva. The Background Paper of the UN High Commissioner for Refugees to the Dialogue states: “Protection screening and refugee status determination should not take place at sea.” This reflects international refugee law, which provides that asylum seekers have an adequate opportunity to make a claim for protection, and the law of the sea, which requires swift embarkation to a place of safety following a rescue.

“Australia’s actions in the Indian Ocean show the yawning gap between its practices and international legal principles,” said Elaine Pearson, Australia director at Human Rights Watch. “Australia shouldn’t ignore the well-documented and politically motivated torture, rape, and ill-treatment of many men and women detained by Sri Lankan security forces.”

Foreign governments should publicly call on the Sri Lankan authorities to immediately release any of the 37 returnees arbitrarily detained. The governments should urge Australian diplomats in Sri Lanka to closely monitor the treatment of the 37 so that none are mistreated or face retaliation for their irregular departure.

“This case highlights the failures of Australia’s ‘enhanced screening’ procedures for Sri Lankans fleeing persecution by boat,” said Graham Thom, refugee coordinator at Amnesty International Australia. “The flawed procedures, including a handful of questions conducted at sea, offer only minimal opportunity to highlight torture, rape, or other persecution.”

Australian authorities handed the asylum seekers’ boat directly to the custody of the Sri Lankan navy on November 29, after only cursory screening at sea. Only one asylum seeker on board was accepted as an asylum seeker, and was sent to Nauru for his claim to be assessed. The government’s assessment of the plausibility of the asylum seekers’ claims, without giving them time to recover from the sea voyage and prepare their claims, or to have proper access to lawyers and review, was unfair and endangered peoples’ lives, the three organizations said.

Australian authorities had originally stopped the vessel on November 15, and prevented it from reaching Indonesian waters.

Returning individuals directly to countries from which they have fled, without adequately assessing their claims for protection, violates Australia’s obligations under international law not to send people back to countries where they would face the threat of torture or persecution.

Australia violated its obligations under international law by sending the 37 asylum seekers back to Sri Lanka, without properly assessing their protection claims, the organizations said.

According to Department of Immigration documents obtained by the Guardian, asylum applicants from Sri Lanka reportedly constituted 99 percent of applicants subjected to enhanced screening in the year following its introduction in Australia in October 2012.

“The government’s shoddy assessments at sea fail to ensure that Australia does not return people to real risk of harm,” said Daniel Webb, director of legal advocacy at the Human Rights Law Centre. “These are life or death decisions. Asking people a couple of questions on a boat in the middle of the ocean just doesn’t cut it.

The Sri Lankan government should ensure the safety of all the returned asylum seekers, the groups said.

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