File image.
File image.

UNHCR has 'profound concerns' at Tamil asylum seeker reports

THE SILENCE surrounding a week-long debate about Sri Lankan Tamil asylum seekers which may have been transferred to the authorities they were fleeing has rung alarm bells at the UNHCR.

Almost a week after initial media reports aired, Immigration Minister Scott Morrison has refused to confirm or deny the existence of the Tamil asylum seekers, or any deal with Sri Lanka over their return.

That is despite reports this week that Sri Lankan authorities effectively confirmed an at-sea transfer of the reported 153 Tamils from an Australian vessel to Sri Lankan authorities was imminent.

But the UNHCR, in a rare foray into political debate, on Thursday night expressed its "profound concern" at the reports, alluding that such a transfer may breach Australia's obligations under the refugee convention.

The human rights body released a statement which said that when such boats were intercepted, requests for protection "should be considered within the territory of the intercepting state".

"International law prescribes that no individual can be returned involuntarily to a country in which he or she has a well-founded fear of persecution," the statement reads.

"If protection issues are raised, they should be properly determined through a substantive and fair refugee status determination procedure to establish whether any one of them may be at risk of persecution or other serious human rights violations."

"Anything short of such a screening, referral and assessment may risk putting already vulnerable individuals at grave risk of danger."

The statement had reinforced unanswered questions about the validity of Australia's processing of the reported asylum seekers' claim, whether valid or not.

Both Mr Morrison and Prime Minister Tony Abbott have said the government's policy of secrecy, and its "on-water" actions were consistent with international laws.

But neither senior leader has yet produced any evidence to support the claim in regards to the latest, unconfirmed, reports on the Sri Lankan boat, or a second reported boat from India.

The Greens immigration spokeswoman, Senator Sarah Hanson-Young on Friday said the statement was sending a "strong message" to the government to "end this cruelty".

"Handing vulnerable asylum seekers back to the very people they are fleeing, in the middle of the ocean, is unlawful and dangerous," she said.

"It is simply unacceptable for the government to dismiss the concerns raised by the UN, particularly when children are involved."

Mr Morrison's office was contacted for comment.