NINE Sri Lankan men are set to become the first asylum-seekers to be forcibly returned home since the Rudd government was elected. Last night the men were being flown from Christmas Island, where they have been detained since arriving in November, to Perth. They are expected to be detained for two days before being placed on a commercial flight to Sri Lanka.

The men were part of a group of 12 whose boat reached Shark Bay, 800km north of Perth, before being spotted by campers. Two of the men have already returned home voluntarily. The Australian understands the nine men were found by Department of Immigration and Citizenship to have come to Australia in search of work. Another man from the group remains on Christmas Island where he is appealing the rejection of his asylum claim through the Federal Court.

Last night Immigration Minister Chris Evans said none of the men would be in danger when returned to Sri Lanka. “All protection issues raised by this particular group have been fully assessed against Australia’s international treaty obligations and there are no protection issues which would prevent their return to Sri Lanka,” hesaid.

But refugee advocate Ian Rintoul said it was outrageous the government was deporting one of the men, Sarath Tennakoon, after he claimed his life would be in danger if forced to return. In an interview with The Australian in August, Mr Tennakoon said he had told the Department of Immigration and Citizenship that his life was in danger after he was identified by the Tamil Tigers as a member of the air force intelligence unit in 2002.

“The appalling human rights abuses of the Sri Lankan government is well known to the world,” Mr Rintoul said. “It is too dangerous for anyone with problems with the Sri Lankan government, Tamil or Sinhalese, to be sent back.” Mr Rintoul said he was attempting to lodge a last-minute appeal to the Federal Court against Mr Tennakoon’s deportation.

All nine men appealed against the department’s decision to the refugee review tribunal but were unsuccessful. They then lodged claims for the minister to intervene and allow them to stay but this was also rejected. The appeals lodged by the men were only possible because they were found so close to shore and classified as mainland arrivals. Asylum-seekers found outside Australia’s migration zone do not have such appeal rights.

To date, 22 people detained on Christmas Island have returned home voluntarily and a further 58 Indonesian men are expected to leave voluntarily this weekend. The men arrived on a boat intercepted near Barrow Island last month and were believed to have come to Australia in search of work.

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