High Court action & urgent appeal to UN

Update from ABC News (Friday 18 July): Government lawyers given Monday deadline to file defence

The HRLC has taken a range of urgent steps to prevent Sri Lankan asylum seekers being handed over to the very regime they claim to be fleeing.

At the end of June, two boats carrying around 200 Sri Lankan asylum seekers, including around 40 children, were intercepted by Australian authorities. The asylum seekers had previously made contact with advocates and journalists but communication suddenly ceased. Despite growing concerns for the wellbeing of these people, the Australian Government persistently refused to confirm whether they were ok, whether they were in Australian custody and, if so, what the Government planned to do with them.

The HRLC immediately condemned the Government’s actions and the undemocratic secrecy surrounding them.

Our Director of Legal Advocacy, Daniel Webb, explained to the ABC’s The World Today program that incommunicado detention on the high seas and then potentially returning the persecuted to their persecutors with no due process were both clear breaches of international law.

The HRLC also sent a request for urgent action to the UN Special Rapporteur on torture and other cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment, an important accountability mechanism within the UN system.

“You can’t just detain 200 people and not tell anyone. And you can’t just deliver 200 people straight back into the hands of those they claim to be fleeing. Doing so would clearly breach international law. We’ve asked the UN Special Rapporteur on Torture to take urgent action to stop this from happening,” said Mr Webb.

41 asylum seekers on board the first boat were handed by the Australian authorities to the Sri Lankan Navy on around 7 July.

High Court action to prevent the return of second boat with around 150 asylum seekers was commenced on 7 July by Shine Lawyers and barristers led by Ron Merkel QC.

The content of the HRLC’s urgent appeal along with a significant HRLC report released in March detailing various human rights risks arising from Australia’s cooperation with the Sri Lankan Navy formed the basis of the evidence used to obtain a temporary injunction from the High Court to stop the forced return of the asylum seekers.

The Government subsequently provided an undertaking to give at least 72 hours notice before taking any steps to deliver the asylum seekers into the custody of the government of Sri Lanka. The case will be heard by the High Court on an accelerated timetable with a directions hearing to be held tomorrow.

The hearing of the urgent High Court case was the first time the Government admitted that the boat had been intercepted.

The HRLC has been assisting the legal team with preparation for the case. Earlier this week HRLC lawyers conducted phone interviews with a number of the asylum seekers detained on an Australian vessel in a secret location somewhere at sea. Due to the terms and conditions agreed to in order to get access to these asylum seekers, the HRLC is not permitted to disclose the content of the interviews at this stage.

The unprecedented level of secrecy from the Australian Government on this matter is utterly unacceptable. The HRLC has been highlighting in the mainstream media how the Government’s actions are violating international law and stressing the importance of fair and transparent assessment of people’s individual protection claims.

For example, our Director of Legal Advocacy, Daniel Webb, wrote an opinion piece for the Herald Sun about why Australia shouldn’t return people to places where they face death or torture and appeared on ABC News 24’s Weekend Breakfast program. Our Directory of Advocacy and Research, Emily Howie, wrote a piece for the Guardian Australia about the significant human rights risks in Sri Lanka and our Executive Director, Hugh de Kretser, explained to the ABC’s 730 program details of the High Court challenge and outlined the HRLC’s concerns about the risks to people returned to Sri Lanka to Lateline.

The HRLC’s work on this topic is a prime example of how our specialised legal experience, backed up by quality research, can combine with our detailed knowledge of engaging with UN mechanisms, public advocacy and strategic litigation to make a unique contribution to the collective efforts to challenge Australia’s cruel and unlawful asylum seeker policies.