Sri Lanka’s police arrested 75 would-be asylum seekers on Wednesday, including nine women and six children, who were trying to leave for New Zealand illegally by boat, police said.
The group was arrested in the southern coastal town of Moragolla, the first large-scale arrest of nationals in months after Australia, long a favourite destination for Sri Lanka’s refugees, tightened its borders.
“These people were trying to leave illegally for New Zealand,” a police statement said, adding that they would be taken before a magistrate later Wednesday.
The arrests came five days after Australia announced illegal boats had not reached its shores for 50 days thanks to tighter border patrols.
Asylum seekers, many of whom claim persecution at home over Sri Lanka’s ethnic Tamil separatist conflict, have tried to travel to New Zealand by boat in the past. But neighbouring Australia has been a more favoured destination in recent years.
Sri Lankan police have arrested dozens of people for organising illegal boat trips to Australia, including several naval personnel - an embarrassment for Colombo, which had maintained there was no senior-level official collusion with the smugglers.
Last week, Australia sent back to Sri Lanka 45 nationals who tried to enter the country illegally.