Australia admits returning 41 asylum seekers to Sri Lanka

Australia admits returning 41 asylum seekers to the Sri Lankan authorities at sea

Australian immigration minister Scott Morrison
Australian immigration minister Scott Morrison

Australia has confirmed returning 41 asylum seekers to the Sri Lankan authorities at sea in a transfer that took place on Sunday.

Rights groups had raised concerns that some 200 Sri Lankans may have been handed over, including Tamils who say they face persecution at home.

The government has not commented on other possible cases, but says everyone was subject to "enhanced screening" to ensure compliance with Australia's international obligations.

The is the first time the government has confirmed it has intercepted people at sea, screened them and returned them to their country of origin.

Immigration Minister Scott Morrison defended the decision but refused to reveal the fates of other refugee boats identified in recent weeks.

The Immigration Minister, after steadfastly refusing to discuss his department’s secretive work, this morning confirmed the government had “swiftly” returned the boatload of asylum-seekers to Sri Lanka and challenged others to “have a crack” at the government’s immigration policy.

The transfer came after days of speculation regarding the fate of 203 Sri Lankan asylum seekers, with two boats believed to have been intercepted by Australian authorities.

The 41 asylum-seekers were “subjected to an enhanced screening process” which determined one Sinhalese passenger was entitled to a further refugee assessment.

However, that person “voluntarily requested” to return to Sri Lanka with their fellow passengers.

The government’s refusal to confirm the two boats had been handed back to Sri Lanka angered human rights groups, who say Tamils could face torture, rape and long-term detention if they are returned.

Former Liberal Prime Minister Malcolm Fraser was also scathing of the government, saying handing asylum-seekers back to Sri Lanka at sea was redolent of handing Jews over to the Nazis in the 1930s.

Morrison told Sydney radio 2GB: “There was a lot of shrill and hysterical claims that were made over the course of the past week. None of those have proved to be true.

“What people can see is that it has been a week since there have been reports of this vessel, which has now just been returned to Sri Lanka, within the week the operation ran, it was dealt with, and when the operation concluded I have issued a statement today.”