The Director of Immigration has come under fire for the government's treatment of asylum-seekers and been accused of showing a lack of regard for the United Nations refugee determination process. Human rights lawyers have warned that immigration officers' treatment of asylum seekers at the airport was frequently in breach of customary international law obligations, citing a recent case under judicial review as indicative of a much broader problem. The case involves a family of four Tamil Muslims who arrived on July 2 from Sri Lanka claiming refugee status and were told by immigration officers to go back to their country. A relative who had already been granted refugee status called the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) in Hong Kong and an officer interviewed the family the next day. But immigration officers allegedly interrupted the interview to inform the family they would be removed that evening and that the UNHCR had to complete its interview process before then. The UNHCR pleaded in a letter to the Director of Immigration for more time to assess the claim and contacted a solicitor asking whether 'anything could be done' for the applicants. It subsequently rejected the claim and an appeal in one short telephone conversation with the claimants, prompting the agency to file a judicial review. Human rights lawyer Mark Daly said the situation these asylum seekers found themselves in was far from an isolated incident. 'When people claim refugee status at the airport, the Director of Immigration effectively seems to put a gun to the head of the UNHCR saying you must make a decision within hours or we will send them back, forcing them to make snap decisions on whether a person is likely to be persecuted or not,' Mr Daly said, adding the normal process can take up to a year to complete. 'The UNHCR is caught in an awkward situation as it already has a tenuous status here, but it really doesn't look good if it agrees with this procedure without speaking up - we are arguing Hong Kong is breaching its obligations under customary international law.' Bar Association vice-chairman and human rights law expert Philip Dykes SC said there was no mechanism in Hong Kong law for dealing with asylum claims. 'What happens at the airport is critical,' he said. 'If you are turned away, there is no investigation and if there is no investigation, there is no protection for the genuine cases. Under international law, there is an obligation not to refoul refugees.' The Immigration Department, in a written response to questions, said only that the Director of Immigration maintains close liaison with the UNHCR in handling asylum seekers and is mindful that genuine refugees not be deported.