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UN reiterates concerns over Lankans

2014 Jul 16

The United Nations refugee agency has reiterated its concerns over the fate of 153 Sri Lankan asylum seekers who remain on board a customs vessel after their boat was intercepted by Australian authorities last month.

Speaking to Fairfax media, the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) expressed alarm that Australia may have breached a cornerstone of the refugee convention by returning a group of asylum seekers to Sri Lanka after intercepting their boat at sea.

Volker Turk, Director of International Protection, United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, said there was a serious risk that the “enhanced screening” of claims at sea fell well short of requirements for the fair processing of claims and could mean that asylum seekers were returned, or refouled, to persecution.

“You can only ensure respect for the principle of non-refoulement if you have in place proper and fair procedures that identify, with due process, who is in need of international refugee protection and who is not,” he said.

In an exclusive interview with Fairfax Media, Turk has also expressed concern at the fate of 153 asylum seekers who remain on board a customs vessel after their boat was intercepted and urged the Abbott government to rethink its approach.

While the world faced a displacement crisis that was “probably unprecedented since the end of the Second World War”, Turk said he was “absolutely” concerned about the message Australia’s approach sent to the rest of the world.

“You cannot extrapolate Australia’s approach to the rest of the world because, if that was the case, you would spend an enormous amount of resources on moving people from one country to the next and keeping them in limbo.

“And that’s not what we need as an international community in order to address the massive displacement problems that we face in today’s world.”

With almost three million refugees outside Syria and more than one million internally displaced in Iraq, Mr Turk said the agency found itself “a bit startled” by the debate in Australia.

His interview came after Immigration Minister Scott Morrison signaled that the boat still on the high seas will not drop its human cargo at Christmas Island.

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