The asylum seekers were transported from detention centres across Australia and taken to Perth, from where they were flown out on a charter flight run by Skytraders. The flight left at 1.57am.
The group landed in Colombo on Tuesday but has not made contact with family or legal representatives. Returned asylum seekers are, without previous exception, interviewed, arrested and charged by Sri Lanka police on arrival.
Human rights groups and legal advocates have serious concerns over the safety of returned asylum seekers.
The United Nations rapporteur on countering terrorism wrote in a report in July that Sri Lanka’s progress towards peace had “virtually ground to a halt”, and that he heard evidence of “very brutal and cruel methods of torture, including beatings with sticks, the use of stress positions, asphyxiation using plastic bags drenched in kerosene, pulling out of fingernails”.
With airlines under pressure globally over their role in forced deportations, the Australian government is increasingly using charter flights to deport asylum seekers it has judged not to meet its protection obligations.
The Department of Home Affairs recently awarded Skytraders a three-year $63m tender, to begin in December, providing “a dedicated airframe to meet operational demands for the movement of high-risk persons and departmental staff between on-shore and offshore locations”.
The tender, to follow on from an existing $144m contract, stresses the “variable, discreet and confidential nature of ABF’s operations” and says the department needs to take “long-range, multisector flights with limited notice”.
The issue of corporate cooperation in forced removals came to renewed international attention last month when Swedish student Elin Ersson refused to sit down on a plane at Gothenburg airport, protesting that an Afghan man was being deported “to hell”. She succeeded, and the man was removed from the plane.
Similar protests have been staged in Australia, resulting, in some cases, in criminal charges laid against protesters.
In June in the UK, Virgin Atlantic said it would no longer assist the Home Office in deporting people classed as illegal immigrants, after growing unease over the wrongful removal of members of the Windrush generation to Caribbean countries, despite their status as British citizens.
In the US, airlines including American, Frontier, Southwest and United airlines refused to carry immigrant children being separated from their families under since abandoned “zero tolerance” border policies. Pilots on Germany’s national carrier, Lufthansa, have repeatedly refused to fly asylum seekers to countries where they may face danger.
In Australia both Qantas and Virgin are under pressure over their participation in forced removals and internal movement of asylum seekers and others in immigration detention.
Both airlines have said they comply with Australian law and are advised by the Australian government on forcible removals and transportations.
However, Qantas shareholders have moved a motion for the upcoming shareholders’ meeting, to be held next month, resolving that the board “commit to engaging a heightened due diligence process in relations to any involuntary transportation activity it is involved in as a service provider to the Australian Department of Home Affairs”.
Brynn O’Brien from the Australasian Centre for Corporate Responsibility (ACCR) said Australian airlines were taking a struthioid attitude towards potential breaches of international human rights law.
“The domestic mechanisms for assessing asylum claims in Australia are woefully inadequate and have been roundly criticised by international and domestic human rights bodies,” she said. “To shield themselves from legal, financial and reputational risks, Qantas and Virgin should run a mile from any involvement in facilitating Australia’s refugee policies.”
The Australian government does not comment on the specific cases but has consistently defended its removal processes, saying it adheres strictly to international law.
“Australia does not remove people to Sri Lanka who engage Australia’s non-refoulement obligations,” a spokesperson said. “Australia takes its non-refoulement obligations seriously.”