CANBERRA, Australia, July 8 (UPI) -- Officials in Australia have admitted their government is currently holding 153 Sri Lankan asylum seekers at sea while Australia fights a legal battle to return them to their home country.
The High Court of Australia has temporarily blocked the nation's coalition government from sending the asylum seekers back to Sri Lanka until the ongoing legal dispute about Australia's tough immigration policies is settled.
All 153 refugees were detained when the boat they were sharing was intercepted in Australia's contiguous zone. Because they were not within Australian waters, the Sri Lankans could not seek asylum under the country's Migration Act.
Prior to Tuesday's hearing in Melbourne, the government had refused to confirm or deny the at-sea detention, part of its policy of not commenting on immigration matters under the secretive "Operation Sovereign Borders."
Rumors and details about Sri Lankan detanees became known primarily due to their own efforts to reach out to the international humanitarian community. One of the detainees contacted a well-known human rights activist, describing the detention, poor living conditions and overall uncertainty.
"It took getting a case to the High Court before the government would admit that they did have those people in custody and that they were on the high seas, that's not good enough," Ian Rintoul of the Refugee Action Coalition told CNN.
Under current Australian law, detainees seeking asylum must answer four or five questions over the phone or via Skype, with no legal representation or advice. If the interviewing officer does not believe the asylum seeker's story or does think it warrants protection, the application for entry to Australia is immediately denied and the individual sent back.
"That a liberal democracy such as Australia can treat people in this way, failing to meet their international obligations, failing to uphold the principles that it proclaims are at its foundations, is quite outrageous," executive director of the Centre for Policy Alternatives Dr. Pakiasothy Saravanamuttu told the Sydney Morning Herald.
"There are ways to do this that are both humane and cost effective and I would urge the Australia government to consider these other approaches when it comes to dealing with refugees."
Tuesday's High Court ruling requires 72 hours written notice before any of the detainees can be returned to Sri Lanka and grants the government the right to move the detainees to one of its offshore processing centers.