Australia could be breaching international laws by forcing boats carrying asylum seekers back to Indonesian waters, the United Nations High Commissioner on Refugees has warned, as it asks the federal government for an explanation of the practice.
The UNHCR is also seeking details about reported government plans to buy boats that could be used to accommodate asylum seekers in future push-backs.
UNHCR spokesman Adrian Edwards said at a press briefing in Geneva they "would be concerned by any policy or practice pushing back asylum-seeker boats at sea without a proper consideration of individual needs for protection".
"Any such approach would raise significant issues and potentially place Australia in breach of its obligations under the Refugee Convention and other international law obligations," said Mr Edwards.
"As past experience has shown, such practices are also operationally difficult and potentially dangerous for all concerned."
The government received a request for a briefing from the UNHCR on Friday and it will be raised with the Minister for Immigration Scott Morrison on Monday.
The comments come after media reports that up to five boats had been pushed back including one on New Year's Day. Asylum seekers on board told Fairfax Media they had been towed for several days before being dumped in Indonesian waters.
The government has refused to comment on the push-backs including the claims that the latest boat was towed by a navy vessel. However, the defence force has denied claims from the asylum seekers on board that boat, that they were mistreated.
Mr Morrison, who is on leave, issued a statement on Saturday saying that the UNHCR had been a long term opponent and critic of the Coalition's strong border protection policies.
"Despite our difference in views about what is necessary to stop the boats and the deaths at sea, the government remains a strong supporter of the UNHCR international resettlement programme, most recently offering 500 of the 2000 places sought by the UNHCR for refugees from the Syrian conflict," Mr Morrison said.
"The government is taking the steps necessary to protect our borders consistent with our domestic laws and international obligations."
Mr Edwards said that instead of a policy of push-backs, the UNHCR continued to recommend that efforts be made to strengthen regional cooperation on the basis of solidarity and responsibility-sharing which build on national asylum systems.
The story Boat turnbacks may breach international law: UNHCR first appeared on The Sydney Morning Herald.