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Australia Won't Return Sri Lankan Asylum Seekers Without Notice

Australia has agreed not to return a second boatload of Sri Lankan asylum seekers without first giving 72 hours' notice. The pledge came at a High Court hearing Tuesday, a day after the government acknowledged that it had handed over 41 asylum seekers to Sri Lankan authorities in a transfer at sea.

The government said Tuesday at the High Court hearing that the second batch of Sri Lankans, numbering 153, were being held on an Australian Customs vessel. The Australian Broadcasting Corp. says they are all Tamil.

As we told you Monday, "Sri Lanka ended a decades-long civil war against separatist Tamil rebels in 2009. But human rights groups say the government, which is dominated by the Sinhalese, also cracked down on civilian Tamil populations. They say Tamils still face reprisals from the military."

ABC has more from Tuesday's hearing:

"Tuesday's hearing in Melbourne was told at least 21 of the asylum seekers are minors, aged between 2 and 16 years of age. The majority of the group as a whole are males.

"Ron Merkel QC, who is acting for the asylum seekers, told the court the boat was intercepted in Australian waters and that there was evidence it was in 'trouble' at the time.

"However, Solicitor-General Justin Gleeson said the boat was found in Australia's contiguous zone — not the migration zone — and argued that the passengers had no right to claim asylum in Australia."

ABC adds that if the court accepts that lawyers for the asylum seekers have a case to be heard, then it could prevent the Sri Lankans from being handed over to their government. A decision is expected within 21 days.

Meanwhile, the 41 asylum seekers who were controversially returned to Sri Lankan authorities on Sunday appeared in court Tuesday in the Sri Lankan city of Galle. Twenty-seven of them were granted bail. Five of those who remained in custody are accused of organizing the trip. They face up to five years in prison.

Immigration is a controversial subject in Australia, which is a favored destination for asylum seekers. As the BBC notes:

"Australian Prime Minister Tony Abbott inherited hard-line asylum policies from the previous government and has since toughened them.

"He says his policy is about saving lives by preventing people getting on potentially dangerous boats to travel to Australia. ...

"Many Australians support the tough asylum policy, believing those concerned are economic migrants rather than political refugees."

But the tough policy has also been criticized by groups such as the U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees.

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