Updated: 07/07/2014 19:47 | By Agence France-Presse

Australia court halts asylum-seeker deportation to Sri Lanka

A High Court on Monday barred Australia from handing back a boatload of 153 asylum-seekers to Sri Lanka, just hours after Canberra confirmed another vessel had been returned to Colombo.


Australia court halts asylum-seeker deportation to Sri Lanka

A woman holds a placard as she protests against the Australian government's treatment of Sri Lankam asylum-seekers during a rally in Sydney, on July 7, 2014 - by William West

The interim injunction applies at least until a hearing resumes on Tuesday afternoon and was granted after lawyers argued the transfer was illegal.

Refugee advocates claim the asylum-seekers have been deprived of the right to have their claims for refugee status properly assessed, with their screening reportedly being carried out at sea via video link.

Lawyer George Newhouse said they were "entitled to have their claims for protection processed in accordance with Australian law".

"The asylum-seekers claim that they are fleeing persecution and that they're at risk of death, torture or significant harm by Sri Lankan authorities," he told Australian Associated Press.

"The minister cannot simply intercept their vessel in the middle of the night and disappear them."

Concern had been mounting over the fate of two boats reportedly intercepted by the Australian navy in Australian waters late last month.

After a week of secrecy, Canberra confirmed earlier Monday that one boatload of 41 Sri Lankans who attempted to reach Australia had been handed back to Colombo. 

Under its policy of not commenting on "operational matters", Canberra had yet to confirm whether the second vessel, carrying 153 people, even exists.

Immigration Minister Scott Morrison said the 41 people had been "subjected to an enhanced screening process... to ensure compliance by Australia with our international obligations under relevant conventions".

He said only one person, a Sinhalese Sri Lankan, may have had a case for asylum but he opted to return voluntarily with the rest of the passengers.

Of those sent back, 37 were Sinhalese and only four were Tamil, according to the minister.

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