Updated: 07/03/2014 15:27 | By Agence France-Presse

Australian Sri Lanka boat claims 'extremely troubling'

Claims that asylum-seekers were being screened at sea and handed to the Sri Lankan navy were Thursday branded "extremely troubling" as Prime Minister Tony Abbott denied Australia was breaking any international laws.

Australian Sri Lanka boat claims 'extremely troubling'

People attend a candlelight vigil in support of asylum seekers, in Melbourne on February 23, 2014 - by Esther Lim

Concern has been mounting over the fate of two boats, one reportedly carrying 153 Tamil asylum-seekers and another with 50 on board, intercepted in recent days by the Australian navy in Australian waters.

Under its policy of not commenting on "operational matters" Canberra has refused to confirm the boats exist, sparking criticism from the media and rights advocates.

The Australian broadsheet said a mid-ocean transfer of some would-be refugees to a Sri Lankan naval vessel was imminent, with the government desperate to maintain its record of no boatpeople making it to Australia for more than six months.

This was likely to take place in international waters, it added.

Separately, the Sydney Morning Herald reported that those on board were being asked just four basic questions via video link to the Australian boat that picked them up in assessing their claim for asylum.

"Allegations that Australian authorities have intercepted at least two Tamil boats and handed them over to the Sri Lankan navy after only brief telephone interviews are extremely troubling," said Human Rights Watch director Elaine Pearson.

Refugee lawyer Julian Burnside told the Herald Canberra could be guilty of refoulement -- the returning of refugees -- with the apparent screening process in breach of international law.

Non-refoulement is a key principle of refugee law, regarding protection from being returned to areas where their lives or freedoms could be threatened.

"If a person is screened out by those four cursory questions and if the person is a refugee then we will be guilty of refoulement," he said.

"It is very clear the department is screening people to get them out as fast as possible and not with a view to assess whether they are refugees."

Pearson agreed that laws could be breached.

"Australia may want to protect its borders, but it should not risk being complicit in torture by sending Tamil asylum-seekers back to Sri Lanka without a proper process to assess the legitimacy of their claims," she said.

Abbott said he was confident Australia was abiding by its international obligations, while claiming Sri Lanka was "a society at peace".

"Everything we do is consistent with safety at sea and everything we do is consistent with our international obligations," he said.

Under its hardline policies on tackling boatpeople, Abbott's conservative government has been turning vessels back to Indonesia, where most originate.

But this is believed to be the first time one would be returned to Sri Lanka.

"Sri Lanka is a peaceful country now, I don't say it is a perfect country," Abbott added in response to concerns about what might happen to those returned to a nation they had fled in fear of persecution.

"The horrific civil war is well and truly over, everyone in Sri Lanka is infinitely better off due to the cessation of civil war."

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