United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees said pushing asylum seeker boats back at sea without a proper consideration of an individual’s need for protection could place Australia in breach of its international obligations.
”Any such blanket approach would potentially place Australia in breach of its obligations under the Refugee Convention and other international law obligations, and – as past experience has shown – is operationally difficult and dangerous for all concerned,” its spokesman said.
Under refugee laws, Australia cannot forcibly remove boats once they reach Australian waters without first giving asylum seekers the chance to make their case for protection.
The dean of Macquarie University’s law school, Natalie Klein, said under the law of the sea Australia did not have authority to board vessels outside its contiguous zone (that is, beyond 24 nautical miles of the Australian coast).
”Once a person has raised a claim of asylum, Australia doesn’t escape its obligations because it’s operating extra-territorially. Australia has to be sure it isn’t sending asylum seekers back to countries where they will be persecuted.”
Professor Klein said Australia could only legally board Sri Lankan boats in international waters if the two countries signed a bilateral treaty.
An international maritime law expert at the Australian National University Don Rothwell said a bilateral agreement with Sri Lanka to allow Australia to return boats in international waters could breach the Refugee Convention, because the Navy would be returning asylum-seekers to the place from which they claimed to be fleeing persecution.
The Navy also would need to be protected by Australian laws to take over boats in international waters, he said.