SRI Lanka stands ready to co-operate with Australia in what was shaping last night as the most public test of the Coalition’s tough asylum-seeker policy.
Sri Lankan high commissioner Admiral Thisara Samarasinghe pledged his government’s continued support for the border protection policies of “close friend” Australia, including the swift return of boatpeople, amid claims that 153 Tamils were being held aboard an Australian vessel close to Christmas Island after a two-week journey from India.
There were reports yesterday that two asylum-seeker boats had been intercepted by border protection authorities — including the one from India, which refugee advocates said had encountered mechanical problems, and a second from Indonesia with about 50 passengers.
While the government refused to comment on the reports, Christmas Island residents noted activity around the Customs vessel Ocean Protector a short distance off the coast of the island yesterday.
Island detention workers told The Australian they had been instructed to take bedding into a vacant compound where air-conditioners were being repaired in case the Tamils — reportedly including 37 children — were brought ashore today.
If a boat did reach Australian waters, it would be the first since December 19.
A spokesman for India’s External Affairs Ministry declined to comment on the issue yesterday and Sri Lankan Media and Information Minister Keheliya Rambukwella would not respond to repeated requests for confirmation of whether his government would be prepared to accept the asylum-seekers.
But Sri Lankan human rights lawyer and refugee advocate Lakshan Dias said in the past 12 months Australia had deported numerous formerly India-based Sri Lankan Tamil asylum-seekers to Sri Lanka.
“It’s not because the Indian government has refused to accept people back but because Australia has this understanding with the Sri Lankan government,” Mr Dias said. “Many of these people who have been returned to Sri Lanka have been living in India for 10 or 20 years and have no Sri Lankan passports or family there. Sometimes they are held and interrogated, some are questioned or beaten, and they are unable to return to India.”
Immigration Minister Scott Morrison refused to confirm or deny that two boats had been intercepted. Opposition immigration spokesman Richard Marles said the “veil of secrecy” was an embarrassment. Analyst Sreeram Chaulia said India would probably take back the asylum-seekers if asked , adding that sending them back by boat would be a death sentence given the monsoon was expected to hit within the week.
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