Sri Lanka’s police arrested 37 nationals on Friday after they were turned back by Australian authorities on the high seas while attempting to seek asylum, an officer has said. Superintendent Ajith Rohana said Australia’s coastguard intercepted the trawler carrying the Sri Lankans near the Indonesian coast, in the first such case in four months, before handing the asylum seekers over to Sri Lanka’s navy on Thursday.
“The boat left Sri Lanka on November 1,” Rohana said, adding that six children were among the passengers. “Investigations are being conducted by the anti-people smuggling unit of the CID [criminal investigation department].“They are being held in custody, but will be taken before a magistrate shortly.”
The Tamil Refugee Council released a statement on Saturday condemning the asylum seekers’ return. “Under this illegal screening system, these people get asked only a handful of questions, have no legal help and insufficient time to explain their circumstances,” said the council’s spokesman Trevor Grant. “It is a system designed to ensure one outcome – that they are returned forthwith.
“Less than two years ago, the Australian government’s own statistics showed that about 90% of boat arrivals, including those from Sri Lanka, were judged to be in need of protection. Yet suddenly, under a secret process on a boat on the high seas, with no legal oversight, only one of 38 is judged to need protection.
“The idea that you can properly test a person’s claim for refugee status at sea has been condemned by well-respected legal and human rights groups many times, yet this government cares nothing for its legal, moral or ethical obligations.”
The returns were the first since July when a boat loaded with 41 nationals was intercepted by Australia. Sri Lanka charged them with illegally leaving the country, and their cases are due to be taken up by a court next May. Australia has given two vessels to Sri Lanka’s navy to patrol its shores and stop boats leaving the island, as part of Canberra’s hardline border protection policy.
Australia faces international censure over its treatment of boat people, who are denied resettlement in Australia and sent to camps in Papua New Guinea and the Pacific state of Nauru. (The Guardian)