Written by Staff Writer
08 Jul, 2014 | 10:42 pm
After more than a week of speculation centered on media reports, government lawyers of Australia have confirmed that 153 asylum-seekers, including children as young as two, have been intercepted and are being held on a customs vessel.
The confirmation comes as the Australian High Court considered an application Tuesday to prevent Australia from handing back the asylum-seekers to Sri Lanka, as criticism over the government’s hardline policy mounted.
An interim injunction on Monday temporarily halted the transfer of would-be refugees to Colombo from the boat carrying mostly minority ethnic Tamils reportedly intercepted at sea late last month.
For the past one and a half weeks, News 1st has been covering the reports of these purported asylum-seekers extensively, with daily updates through our segment, 153 Missing at Sea.
Speaking exclusively to News 1st on several occasions, Sarah Whyte, immigration orrespondent with the Sydney Morning Herald, reported on the possible existence of two boats.
According to the Australia-based ABC News, government lawyers of Australia told a High Court hearing that 72 hours notice would be given before the 153 asylum-seekers, currently being held on an Australian Customs ship, purportedly the Ocean Protector, are handed back to Sri Lankan authorities.
It was on Sunday last week that News 1st reported on sightings of the vessel Ocean Protector, in close proximity to where the asylum-seeker boat was last reported to be.
However, when inquiries were made, both Australian and Sri Lankan authorities, remained tight-lipped on the existence of such a boat.
Lawyers acting for about one third of the asylum-seekers, whose whereabouts the Australian government is yet to disclose, are seeking to challenge the legality of the Australian Commonwealth’s actions.
Counsel for the government Justin Gleeson, SC, revealed during the hearing that the boat carrying the asylum seekers had been intercepted outside Australia’s migration zone.
In the hearing, Gleeson, appearing via video link from Sydney, said the government had the executive discretion to determine where those detained ended up under the Maritime Powers Act.
But Ron Merkel, QC, acting for the asylum seekers, claimed the government did not have the power to lawfully return the asylum seekers to Sri Lanka against their will before their claims were determined.
It was on Saturday last week that News 1st first reported on the existence of this boat.
Citing reports in the Australian media, we also broadcast part of a telephone conversation that was reportedly held with one of the passengers on board the vessel – the last known direct civilian contact with the boat.
Timeline of events
24 hours later on June 29, News 1st, quoting international media reports and Australian Labour Party MP Alannah MacTiernan, reported that staff on Christmas Island, had been told to prepare for the possible arrival of the asylum-seekers.
On June 30, several days since the reports of the boats emerged and civilian contact was lost, the Australian government refused to comment on whether these boats existed, the standard response being that Australia did not comment on ongoing on water operations.
On July 1, Newsfirst reported on the possibility of an impending transfer of asylum-seekers to Sri Lanka. The Australian government maintained its silence, while Sri Lankan authorities said there had been no such handover.
On July 2, Sri Lanka’s High Commissioner in Australia Admiral Thisara Samarasinghe, speaking to News 1st, said he had not been appraised on the situation and refused to comment further on the matter.
On July 3, Australian Prime Minister Tony Abbott, while not commenting on the existence of such a boat or boats, noted that Australia was living up to its international obligations.
Sarah Whyte of the Sydney Morning Herald informed News 1st that while the boat carrying 153 asylum-seekers was believed to have left India, a second boat had originated from Sri Lanka.
On July 4, when News 1st contacted Navy Media Spokesperson Commander Kosala Warnakulasuriya, he informed us that the Navy -had not been issued any directive with regard to a transfer of asylum-seekers.
On July 5, Australia’s Foreign Minister Julie Bishop, while maintaining silence on the existence of this boat, noted that Australia was determined to stamp out the criminal people-smuggling trade.
On July 7, as developments unfolded rapidly with the Sri Lanka Navy confirming the transfer of 41 illegal migrants by the Australian authorities, the Australian High Court issued an interim injunction preventing the transfer of the 153 asylum-seekers.
It is against this backdrop that Australia’s Immigration and Border Protection Minister Scott Morrison is due to arrive in the country on July 9.
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