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Australia Silent on Reported Interception of Asylum Seekers at Sea

  • Phil Mercer

FILE - Sri Lankan asylum seekers stay on their traditional boat near Dili's port.

FILE - Sri Lankan asylum seekers stay on their traditional boat near Dili's port.

Australia is refusing to discuss the fate of dozens of Tamil asylum seekers reportedly intercepted in the country’s northern waters. Reports have suggested two asylum seeker boats have been intercepted by Australian authorities in the Indian Ocean, and that some of the passengers are to be transferred to the Sri Lankan navy at sea.

Reports have indicated that two boats carrying asylum seekers from Sri Lanka were intercepted by the Australian navy about a week ago. One of the vessels is believed to have left southern India last month with 150 Tamils on board, but there has been no contact with refugee groups since the weekend.

Campaigners insist that some of the asylum seekers are to be transferred to a Sri Lankan navy ship and repatriated. The U.N. refugee agency has expressed “profound concern” over the reported plans to forcibly return the group to a country under investigation for alleged war crimes committed during its civil war that ended in 2009.

Quizzed at a news conference Thursday, Australia’s immigration minister, Scott Morrison, refused to make public any details about the operation. On Friday, he canceled a visit to a detention center in the southern city Melbourne after protesters planned to confront him.

Information about asylum seekers arriving by sea has been tightly controlled by the government, which has instructed the military to tow or turn back asylum boats trying to reach its northern waters.

Lucy Honan, from the Refugee Action Collective, accuses the Australian government of hiding the truth about the asylum boats.

“When you have the Sri Lankan government admitting that there is some kind of transfer going on at sea between the Australian government and themselves that is pretty infuriating. I mean, even the U.N. has now said that is something of huge concern. We are concerned about it because those asylum seekers have rights to seek asylum in Australia from that government that our government is returning them to,” said Honan.

Following last September’s federal election, the conservative government promised tough measures to stem a steady flow of unauthorized arrivals coming by sea.

It is using the military to patrol the nation’s maritime borders, and reopened offshore refugee camps in the South Pacific.

Ministers said their aims are twofold; to protect Australia’s borders and to discourage asylum seekers from making the perilous sea crossing from transit points in Indonesia, or from Sri Lanka, India and Malaysia.

However, critics have insisted the policies unfairly target vulnerable people fleeing persecution.

Australia grants about 13,000 refugee visas each year under various international agreements.

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