Government told Tamil asylum seekers they would be forced onto lifeboats and dropped in the ocean

Lawyers for the 157 Tamil asylum seekers revealed that Australian Government officers told the group they would be forced to go to India in three orange lifeboats dropped into the ocean somewhere off the coast of India. 

Nine adults were instructed in English how to use the lifeboats and told they had to obey Australian Government orders to go on the boats.

The move happened on around 14 July while the High Court proceeding was on foot and after the group had already been detained on the Oceanic Protector for almost two weeks.

“The Government’s willingness to consider forcing 157 men, women and children as young as one onto lifeboats and dump them out at sea makes a complete mockery of the its claims to care for their wellbeing and for safety at sea,” said Hugh de Kretser, Executive Director of the Human Rights Law Centre.

“The clients we spoke to were terrified at the prospect of being dumped in the ocean on lifeboats but were told they had to obey.

“What ever your personal views are on politics and refugee policy, this move was an affront to human decency.

“We have been told that on around Monday 14 July, 9 adults and 2 children were removed from the rest of the 157 in the group. The 9 adults were taken to a number of orange lifeboats and told that they would be put in them and would need to navigate them to India.

“They were instructed in English how to use the lifeboats. All of them speak Tamil and only 1 or 2 spoke a little English. They were told that each boat would have 50-60 people on it.

“When they refused, saying they had no experience in operating or navigating a boat and couldn’t take responsibility for ensuring the safety of the people on board, the officers told them it was an Australian Government decision and they had to obey.

“The 9 adults and 2 children were then separately detained from rest of the 157 for four or five days. Each day they were extremely fearful of what was going to happen to them. Then they were taken back into the three main rooms and reunited with the rest of the group. The entire group was then terrified that at any moment they would be dumped in the ocean.

“It’s not clear why the Government eventually decided not to proceed with the lifeboat plan but the whole episode reveals the desperate measures they are prepared to use regardless of the human cost.

“Secret detention on the high seas, trying to dump families in lifeboats in the ocean, secret overnight transfers, misleading the public, frustrating access to lawyers and to the courts: in their desperate attempts to stop asylum seekers coming to Australia by boat, the Government is trashing the things that make Australia a great nation; respect for the rule of law, open and transparent democracy and fundamental human rights.”

 “I was struck that despite everything they had been through, our clients thanked the Australian Government for bringing them to the Australian mainland. Now they’ve been secretly transferred to Nauru and given the reports of the state they arrived in, I’m deeply concerned about their wellbeing.

“These 157 men, women and children have been subjected to a level of cruelty that has no place in modern Australia,” said Mr de Kretser.

The Human Rights Law Centre has been told that:

  • The majority of the group are Christians.
  • They raised the Virgin Mary flag on the boat to seek her protection for the voyage.
  • They are Sri Lankan Tamils.
  • They are fleeing persecution in Sri Lanka.
  • Some of the asylum seekers arrived in India less than 6 months ago. (We were only able to speak to 15 of the 107 adults on board.)
  • The asylum seekers revealed a precarious existence in India where they were denied basic legal rights including being unable to lawfully work, send their children to school or have freedom of movement. (India is not a party to the Refugee Convention.) Some revealed safety fears in India also. (We were unable to explore these issues properly with the 15 clients we spoke to and were urgently seeking proper legal access to all 157 asylum seekers in order to advise them on the option of speaking to Indian officials in Australia.)
  • While detained on the Oceanic Protector between around 29 June and 25 July, the asylum seekers were locked in three separate windowless rooms (the 9 adults and 2 children who were separated for four or five days during the lifeboat incident were held in a fourth room).
  • They were only allowed out of the rooms for meals and spent at least 22 hours day inside the rooms.
  • On a number of days they were locked in the windowless rooms for the entire day because the weather was rough.
  • They did not know where they were.
  • Families were separated – fathers were placed in separate rooms from women and children. Fathers were only able to see their family 3 or 4 times during the on-water detention.

Further points

  • The asylum seekers were not permitted to have a change of clothing until we intervened on their behalf after speaking to them for the first time on 11 and 12 July, when they had already been detained for around 11 days.
  • Despite Minister Morrison conducting a press conference early on Friday afternoon 25 July confirming they would be brought to Australia, the 157 asylum seekers were not informed of that news until we spoke to them late that afternoon..
  • In Curtin Detention Centre, the asylum seekers asked for phone and internet access in particular to let relatives know they were safe. They were told they would have phone access on Saturday 2 August. They were transferred out of the detention centre on the night of 1 August 

The Human Rights Law Centre has been working with Shine Lawyers and a team of barristers led by Ron Merkel QC to assist the asylum seekers.