Australia said on Monday 41 asylum seekers had been handed back to Sri Lankan authorities at sea, a move that has galvanised opposition to its hardline policy against illegal arrivals and revived fears of rights abuses in Sri Lanka.
Australian border patrol personnel intercepted the vessel carrying the Sri Lankan asylum seekers west of the remote Cocos Islands last week after they were suspected of entering Australian waters illegally. The 41 people on board were transferred to Sri Lankan authorities on Sunday, Australian Immigration Minister Scott Morrison said in a statement.
Rights groups and some Western countries have raised concerns with Sri Lanka over alleged human rights violations during the final phase of the war against Tamil separatists that ended in 2009. Sri Lanka says many asylum seekers are economic migrants, but rights groups say Tamils seek asylum to prevent torture, rape and other violence at the hands of the military.
Last week, the United Nations (UN) expressed "profound concern" about Australia's handling of asylum seekers when Australian media first reported that authorities had intercepted two boats carrying about 200 Sri Lankan nationals between them.
The Australian government had refused to comment on those reports last week. Morrison's statement on Monday gave no explanation of the discrepancy between the number of people handed back on Sunday and the number of vessels and people reported last week and his office did not respond to an email seeking clarification. "There was a lot of shrill and hysterical claims that were made over the course of the past week," Morrison told 2GB radio. "None of those has proved to be true."
Morrison said he would make further statements when other such operations were completed. Australia has maintained tight secrecy around its controversial "Operation Sovereign Borders" programme, repeatedly declining to comment on reports of its navy's activities at sea.
Monday's statement said the vessel carrying the 41 people was at no stage in distress and that the transfer had been carried out in "mild" conditions off the eastern Sri Lankan port of Batticaloa. All those people aboard the vessel were safe and accounted for, it said, without providing any more detail.
Sri Lankan naval spokesman Kosala Warnakulasuriya confirmed the transfer of 41 people. "They will be brought to (the southwestern port of) Galle and will be handed over to the CID (Criminal Investigation Department)," he said.
The UNHCR said last week it was concerned about reports that the group had been returned after only a brief assessment by Australian authorities of the risks they faced at home.
In the past three months, three Tamil asylum seekers on temporary visas in Australia, facing the prospect of being returned to Sri Lanka, have set themselves on fire. Two died.
Morrison said the 37 Sinhalese and four Tamils were subjected to what he described as an "enhanced screening process" before they were handed over. One Sinhalese passenger was entitled to a further refugee assessment but had "voluntarily requested" to return, he said.
The incident comes on the eve of a visit by Morrison this week to Sri Lanka, where he is due to talk with government and defence officials and attend a ceremony to mark Australia's gift of two former patrol vessels to Sri Lanka.
RETURNING THE BOATS
Australian Prime Minister Tony Abbott came to power last September partly because of his tough stance on asylum seekers.
While his popularity has since plummeted, more than 70 percent of Australians support the government's border policy, including sending boats back when safe to do so, according to a recent poll by the Lowy Institute think tank.
"The government will continue to reject the public and political advocacy of those who have sought to pressure the government into a change of policy," Morrison said in Monday's statement.
"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 said.
The government has touted its success in blocking asylum seeker boats, saying there have been no illegal arrivals since December 2013.
Australia received 16,000 asylum seeker applications last year, just under 0.5 percent of the 3.6 million applications lodged worldwide, according to UN figures. That has fallen from the one percent share of applications the country received in 2010.
Opposition Greens Party lawmaker Sarah Hanson-Young told the Australian Broadcasting Corp there was "nothing legal about the way (the government) has conducted these operations. They fall far short of our international obligations". The Greens plan to move a motion in parliament this week demanding more detail on the case.