Immigration Minister Scott Morrison has refused to comment on reports that a boatload of Tamil asylum seekers has been handed over to the Sri Lankan Navy.
The government has repeatedly refused to confirm reports that two boats have been intercepted by Australian authorities off Christmas Island in the past week.
One of the boats is reportedly carrying 153 Tamil asylum seekers, including about 30 children - many of them sick - while the other has 50 people aboard.
Addressing media on Thursday, Mr Morrison refused to answers questions on the reported boatload of asylum seekers and the allegedly forced return to the Sri Lankan Navy.
"You're making presumptions in your questions that I can't comment on," he said.
His remarks followed those made by Prime Minister Tony Abbott, who earlier told media that he would not comment about on water matters and would not confirm or deny reports.
“The government is purposefully and methodically ensuring that our borders are protected and that the boats are stopped,” he said.
“… Everything that we do is consistent with safety at seas and everything that we do is consistent with our international obligations.
The Prime Minister had earlier stated that he would not be giving a “regular shipping new broadcast” about naval operations.
Speaking to 3AW radio on Thursday, Mr Abbott also described Sri Lanka as being “at peace”.
“Sri Lanka is not everyone’s idea of the ideal society, but it is at peace,” he said.
“Horrific civil war has ended. I believe there has been a lot of progress when it comes to human rights and the rule of law.”
His comments have shocked the Australian Tamil Congress, as well as the Australian Greens, whose leader Christine Milne said Australians would be horrified if the asylum seekers were returned to the island country.
Addressing media on the reports this morning, Senator Milne said Sri Lanka had a “shocking reputation for human rights”.
“I think the overwhelming majority of Australians will be horrified by this,” she said.
“Not only is it shocking and cruel for the people who have been persecuted and are being treated like this, but it is absolutely in breach of our obligations under the refugee convention.”
Reports of on water screening
The Australian broadsheet has reported that a mid-ocean transfer of some would-be refugees to a Sri Lankan naval vessel was imminent, with the government desperate to maintain its record of no boatpeople making it to Australia for more than six months.
This was likely to take place in international waters, it added.
Separately, the Sydney Morning Herald reported that those on board were being asked just four basic questions via video link to the Australian boat that picked them up in assessing their claim for asylum.
"Allegations that Australian authorities have intercepted at least two Tamil boats and handed them over to the Sri Lankan navy after only brief telephone interviews are extremely troubling," Human Rights Watch director Elaine Pearson said.
Refugee lawyer Julian Burnside told the Herald that the government could be guilty of refoulement, or the returning of refugees, with the apparent screening process in breach of international law.
Non-refoulement is a key principle of refugee law, regarding protection from being returned to areas where their lives or freedoms could be threatened.
"If a person is screened out by those four cursory questions and if the person is a refugee then we will be guilty of refoulement," he said.
"It is very clear the department is screening people to get them out as fast as possible and not with a view to assess whether they are refugees."
- with AAP.