UNHCR is deeply concerned by Australia's announcement today that it has returned some 41 asylum-seekers to Sri Lanka after having intercepted them at sea, as well as the fate of a further 153 asylum-seekers of Sri Lankan origin who are now subject to an Australian High Court injunction on their return.
UNHCR understands that "enhanced screening procedures" were used as a basis for determining whether the 41 individuals involved raised claims for protection which required further consideration. Without further information UNHCR is not in a position, at this time, to confirm whether they were in accordance with international law. UNHCR has previously made known its concerns to Australia about its enhanced screening procedures and their non- compliance with international law.
UNHCR's experience over the years with shipboard processing has generally not been positive. Such an environment would rarely afford an appropriate venue for a fair procedure.
The principle of non-refoulement (the prohibition on return to threats to life or freedom) in the 1951 Refugee Convention and more broadly under customary international law is clear: it applies wherever an asylum-seeker is found and to whatever manner the expulsion or return is carried out, including during interception and other sea operations.
See for more: http://www.unhcr.org/53baa6ff6.html