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UN seeks answers over asylum bids rejected at sea

The United Nations disclosed yesterday that it had raised concerns with Australia about its rejection at sea of asylum-seekers’ refugee applications before secretly returning them to Vietnam.

Forty-six Vietnamese were offloaded by an Australian navy ship at the port of Vung Tau last Friday, according to Australian media reports.

UN refugee agency UNHCR spokeswoman Vivian Tan said that Australian officials had confirmed that the asylum-seekers were screened at sea and returned to Vietnam.

The UNHCR asked the Australian government on Monday for details of procedures used to assess their applications, but Canberra has yet to reply.

“We’ve expressed concerns before over the procedures of screening at sea,” Ms Tan said.

“We’re worried that it may mean that people seeking asylum may not have gone through the proper procedures, their protection claims might not have gone through a fair refugee status determination procedure and, if this is the case, then authorities may be putting at risk already vulnerable people.”

The Australian navy routinely reroutes to Indonesia boats carrying asylum-seekers from Africa, the Middle East and South Asia, where most of the sea voyages begin.

Immigration Minister Peter Dutton has refused to confirm that the Vietnamese asylum-seekers were turned back, citing a policy of secrecy surrounding the interception of people-smuggling boats trying to reach Australian shores.

But his office issued a statement yesterday claiming that Australia had not breached its UN refugee convention obligations by returning refugees to a country where they risk persecution.

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