July 07, Colombo: The Australian government Monday confirmed returning a group of 41 Sri Lankan asylum seekers who attempted to arrive illegally by boat to Australia as part of a maritime people smuggling venture, back to Sri Lanka .
In a statement the office of the Minister of Immigration and Border Protection, Scott Morrison said the Border Protection Command West of Cocos (Keeling) Islands in late June intercepted the suspected vessel carrying illegal asylum seekers.
The Australian government affirmed that at no stage the vessel was in distress and all persons aboard the suspected vessel were safe and accounted for.
The transfer of the asylum seekers to the Sri Lankan authorities has taken place Sunday (July 06) at sea, in mild sea conditions from a vessel assigned to Border Protection Command (BPC), just outside the Port of Batticaloa in Sri Lanka's East, the statement said.
"All persons intercepted and returned were subjected to an enhanced screening process, as also practiced by the previous government, to ensure compliance by Australia with our international obligations under relevant conventions," Mr. Morrison's office said.
According to the Australian government, the 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.
In yesterday's group, which included 37 Sinhalese and 4 Tamils, there was only one person who was recommended to be sent to offshore detention center. However, that person, a Sinhalese has opted to return to Sri Lanka with others.
The Minister's statement did not comment on the boat with 153 asylum seekers on board that was at the center of the controversy.
Mr. Morrision earlier refused to deny or confirm the affair saying he does not discuss operational matters in line with the Government's Operation Sovereign Borders policy.
The Australian Government said it will continue to act in accordance with its international obligations, including applicable international conventions and to protect the safety of life at sea.
"At the same time 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," the government stressed.
"Accordingly, 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. Their advocacy, though well intentioned, is naively doing the bidding of people smugglers who have been responsible for almost 1200 deaths at sea," Mr. Morrison's statement said adding that today is 200th day since the last asylum seeker boat arrived and nobody has drowned at sea during that time.
The office of the Minister said that Australia and Sri Lanka have a strong history of cooperation at the operational level to disrupt people smuggling ventures departing Sri Lanka.
"We are grateful for the efforts of the Sri Lankan Navy to combat people smuggling, as well as other Sri Lankan authorities," Mr. Morrison said.
He said Sri Lanka is one of many close partners with whom the Australian Government works in the region.
"The Australian Government looks forward to continued cooperation with Sri Lanka. Australia's cooperation with Sri Lanka is as important as it is effective," he said.
The Australian Government, he said, does not deal in half measures and has the policies and resolve to fight people smugglers and stop illegal boat arrivals.
The Minister asked the people not to trust the lies of people smugglers and seek to come to Australia illegally by boat. It is dangerous and the Australian Government's strong border protection policies under Operation Sovereign Borders mean they will not succeed, he emphasized.
The Australian Minister will be in Colombo on Wednesday (July 09) for a two-day visit. He will attend a commissioning ceremony for the two former Australian Customs and Border Protection Service Bay Class patrol vessels gifted to the Sri Lankan Navy to combat people smuggling.