The Australian government has promised not to hand over a group of 153 asylum seekers to the Sri Lankan government without three days' notice amid a court challenge and uproar from human rights groups.
The government's pledge came on Tuesday during a High Court hearing held a day after Australia's immigration minister confirmed that another group of asylum seekers had been intercepted, and handed back to Sri Lanka in a transfer at sea.
High Court Justice Susan Crennan, who issued a temporary injunction late Monday night halting any further transfers, adjourned the matter until a later date following Tuesday's hearing.
In the meantime, Justin Gleeson, the government's lawyer, said that none of the asylum seekers would be transferred without 72 hours' written notice.
Refugee advocates and human rights agencies argued that the asylum seekers could face persecution in their home country.
On Sunday, 41 Sri Lankan asylum seekers, including four Tamils, were turned back and sent to their home country.
Al Jazeera's Nidhi Dutt, reporting from Galle in Sri Lanka, said that among the refugees who have returned, nine were minors. The case against them have been dismissed, while the rest have been released on bail. Five others are being held on suspicion of human smuggling.
Sri Lanka said many asylum seekers are economic migrants, but rights groups said Tamils seek asylum to prevent torture, rape and other violence at the hands of the military.
Ben Saul, a law professor at Sydney University, said the court will consider whether the government has stretched its authority for offshore processing of asylum seekers by conducting brief interviews aboard boats rather than transferring passengers to its facilities in Nauru and Papua New Guinea.
'Operation Sovereign Borders'
Legal expert Don Rothwell said Tuesday's High Court hearing could reveal more information about the location of the second boat, undermining the government's usual secrecy surrounding its "Operation Sovereign Borders" policy of sending back asylum seeker boats before they reach Australian territory.
On Monday, Immigration Minister Scott Morrison declined to comment on the second boat other than to say it was not in Australian waters.
The legal challenge alleges that handing back the asylum seekers is illegal because they have not had their claims for protection heard fully.
The UN and rights groups have expressed concern over Australia's "enhanced screening" process, used to assess asylum seekers on the first boat.
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Child rights organisation Plan International Australia said it was gravely concerned about as many as 37 children it believes to be aboard the second boat.
Prime Minister Tony Abbott, who came to power last September partly because of his tough stance on asylum seekers, refused to comment directly on the case but defended Australia's immigration policies.
"I do want to assure everyone that what we do on the water is consistent with our legal obligations and consistent with safety at sea," he told a local television station.
There has been growing concern over the conservative Australian government's hardline immigration policies, a centrepiece of its election victory last year.