Forty one Sri Lankans, including four Tamils, attempting to enter Australia illegally by boat last month as part of a maritime people smuggling venture, have been handed over to Sri Lankan authorities, officials here said today.
The suspected illegal entry vessel (SIEV) was intercepted by Border Protection Command West of Cocos (Keeling) Islands in late last month and at no stage was the vessel in distress as all persons aboard the SIEV were safe and accounted for, Australian Immigration Minister Scott Morrison said.
"Forty one potential illegal maritime arrivals who were intercepted on the SIEV were returned to Sri Lankan authorities yesterday. They were transferred at sea, in mild sea conditions from a vessel assigned to Border Protection Command (BPC) to Sri Lankan authorities, just outside the Port of Batticaloa," the minister said in a statement
After a week of secrecy, Morrison finally acknowledged that the boat of 41 people had been handed back to Sri Lanka but did not comment on the fate of the another one, reportedly carrying 150 people.
All people intercepted and returned were subjected to an enhanced screening process to ensure compliance by Australia of international obligations, he said.
This process includes identifying any person who may need to be referred to a further determination process. In such cases, the government's policy is to transfer such persons to either Papua New Guinea or Nauru for offshore processing.
Out of the 41, in a single case where such a referral was recommended, the individual, a Sinhalese Sri Lankan national, voluntarily requested to depart the vessel with the other persons being transferred and returned to Sri Lanka.
This transfer of 41 nationals, including 37 Sinhalese and four Tamil Sri Lankan nationals, follows previous transfers of potential illegal immigrants to Sri Lanka, including 79 illegal maritime arrivals under Operation Sovereign Borders last year.
Morrison said Australia would ?continue to act in accordance with our international obligations, including applicable international conventions and to protect the safety of life at sea.
However, he said, "We will not allow people smugglers to try and exploit and manipulate Australia's support of these Conventions as a tool to undermine Australia's strong border protection regime that is stopping the boats and the deaths at sea."
Accordingly, the government will continue to reject the public and political advocacy of those who have sought to pressure it into a change of policy, he said.
Their advocacy, though well intentioned, is naively doing the bidding of people smugglers who have been responsible for almost 1,200 deaths at sea, Morrison argued.
"We will continue to do what we said we would, consistent with our obligations, and achieve the results we said we would achieve," he said.
The minister said the two countries had a?strong history of cooperation at the operational level to disrupt people smuggling ventures departing from Sri Lanka.