THE whereabouts of more than 150 Sri Lankan asylum seekers reportedly headed for Australia remain unknown, despite an Abbott government confirmation that 41 on a second boat have been handed back.
After more than a week of silence, Immigration Minister Scott Morrison on Monday confirmed in a statement 41 Sri Lankans were given back to the authorities they were fleeing "in late June".
Those on board, his statement read, were returned to Sri Lankan authorities on Sunday "at sea, in mild sea conditions" near the port of Batticaloa.
Mr Morrison said those on board were subject to an "enhanced screening process" to determine they were not asylum seekers, bar one Sinhalese Sri Lankan.
Despite the UNHCR last week raising its concerns the hand-back of such people could breach Australia's obligations under the refugee convention, Mr Morrison's statement said the handover did comply with international law.
However, Mr Morrison and the government has remained steadfast in neither confirming nor denying the existence of a second vessel, reportedly carrying 153 Sri Lankan Tamils seeking asylum in Australia.
But the screening, Greens Senator Sarah Hanson-Young said, amounted to just four questions posed by teleconference with a translator on the Australian mainland.
Labor's immigration spokesman Richard Marles has also raised concerns the screening process used to assess the 41 confirmed handed back may not be credible.
Update your news preferences and get the latest news delivered to your inbox.