The UN has expressed "profound concern" over reports Australia is screening Sri Lankan asylum seekers at sea and sending them back. Prime Minister Tony Abbott denied breaking international law.
Concern has been mounting over the fate of two boats, one reportedly carrying 153 Tamil Sri Lankan asylum seekers and another with 50 on board, intercepted in Australian waters.
Under its policy of not commenting on "operational matters", Canberra has refused to confirm the boats exist, sparking criticism from the UN refugee agency UNHCR.
"UNHCR has followed with profound concern recent reports in the media and from the community in relation to the interception at sea of individuals who may be seeking Australia's protection," the agency said.
It reminded Canberra of its international obligations and insisted that asylum seekers should be individually screened and accorded fair procedures.
"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 UNHCR said.
It came as
The Australian newspaper said a mid-ocean transfer of some would-be refugees to a Sri Lankan naval vessel was imminent, with the government keen to maintain its record of no boats reaching Australia for more than six months.
In Sri Lanka, while the navy maintained publicly that no transfer had taken place, an official said at least 50 of its nationals could be returned. "There are discussions underway and about 45 to 50 people who are supposed to have set off from [Sri Lanka's] east coast could be brought back by the navy in the coming days," the source said.
Sri Lanka navy spokesman Kosala Warnakulasooriya insisted that no naval craft had been sent to return its citizens.
Another unnamed official said that former Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) rebels were believed to be among the asylum seekers.
Sydney Morning Herald reported the boatpeople were being asked four basic questions via video link to the vessel 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 that Canberra could be guilty of refoulement, or the returning of refugees, with the screening in breach of international law.
Pearson said: "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."
Abbott said he was confident Australia was abiding by its international obligations, and claimed Sri Lanka was "a society at peace".
"Sri Lanka is a peaceful country now. I don't say it is a perfect country," Abbott said.