Sri Lanka rescues Australia-bound illegal immigrants

PUBLISHED : Friday, 04 October, 2013, 9:15pm
UPDATED : Friday, 04 October, 2013, 9:17pm

Sri Lanka’s navy has rescued 70 would-be illegal immigrants drifting on the high seas in the country’s first detected case of people-smuggling since Australia tightened restrictions on asylum-seekers, officials said on Friday.

A naval craft picked up the Sri Lankans, including 17 women and 14 children, who had been drifting for days off the island’s southwest coast following engine trouble in their fishing trawler, a naval official said.

“The navy responded to a distress message sent out on Thursday and the passengers were rescued, and brought ashore on Friday,” the official told reporters at the southern port of Galle.

Navy spokesman Kosala Warnakulasuriya confirmed the rescue mounted on Thursday and said investigations were underway.

One of the passengers told reporters he had paid more than US$6,000 to people-smugglers who had promised to take him and his fellow passengers to Australia within two to three weeks.

It is the first report of a fresh load of boatpeople illegally leaving Sri Lanka since Australia’s previous government in mid-July announced tough measures to curb asylum-seekers.

Australia’s new Prime Minister Tony Abbott has said he will act swiftly to implement a central plank of his election campaign to “stop the boats”, sending a strong signal to people-smugglers.

However, many Sri Lankans have said they were still hopeful of taking a boat ride to Australia to start a new life. In many cases the illegal immigrants were trying to escape poverty at home.

Sri Lankan police have arrested dozens of people, including several naval personnel, for organising illegal boat trips to Australia.

Australia has said it will transfer all asylum-seekers to impoverished Papua New Guinea and Nauru, and even those who are eventually granted refugee status will not be settled in Australia.

It has been supporting efforts by Sri Lanka’s navy to improve its ability to detect people-smuggling boats, but recent arrests have shown some officers colluded with people-smugglers.

Some migrants travel by air to Indonesia and then take rickety wooden vessels to the Australian coast.