A boatload of asylum seekers intercepted by the Australian navy and returned to Sri Lanka will be handed over to the island nation's police, adding to fears over Australia's hardline policy and rights abuses in Sri Lanka.
Australian border patrol officers intercepted the vessel carrying the Sri Lankan asylum seekers west of the remote Cocos Islands last week after they were suspected of entering Australian waters illegally.
The 41 on board were transferred to Sri Lankan authorities on Sunday, Australian Immigration Minister Scott Morrison said in a statement yesterday. A Sri Lankan navy spokesman said the group would be handed over to the Criminal Investigation Department.
Rights groups and some Western countries have raised concerns with Sri Lanka over alleged human rights violations during the final phase of the war against Tamil separatists that ended in 2009.
Sri Lanka says many asylum seekers are economic migrants, but rights groups say Tamils seek asylum to prevent torture, rape and other violence at the hands of the military.
Last week, the United Nations expressed "profound concern" about Australia's handling of asylum seekers when Australian media first reported that authorities had intercepted two boats carrying about 200 Sri Lankan nationals between them.
Morrison hit back yesterday, saying: "A lot of shrill and hysterical claims were made over the course of the past week. None of those has proved to be true."
When asked directly about a second boat, Morrison said it was not in Australian waters, but declined to comment further. To do so would put Australia's "on-water" operations at risk, he said.
Australia has maintained tight secrecy around its controversial "Operation Sovereign Borders" programme, repeatedly declining to comment on reports of its navy's activities at sea.
Monday's statement said the vessel carrying the 41 asylum seekers was at no stage in distress and that the transfer had been carried out in mild conditions off the eastern Sri Lankan port of Batticaloa. All 41 were safe and accounted for, it said.
The UN refugee agency said last week it was concerned about reports that the group had been returned after only a brief assessment by Australian authorities of the risks they faced at home.
In the past three months, three Tamil asylum seekers on temporary visas in Australia, facing the prospect of being returned to Sri Lanka, have set themselves on fire. Two died.
Morrison said the 37 Sinhalese and four Tamils were subjected to what he described as an "enhanced screening process" before they were handed over.
One Sinhalese passenger was entitled to a further refugee assessment, but had "voluntarily requested" to return, he said.
The incident comes on the eve of a visit by Morrison to Sri Lanka this week, where he is due to meet government and defence officials and attend a ceremony to mark Australia's gift of two former patrol vessels to Sri Lanka.
Opposition Greens Party lawmaker Sarah Hanson-Young said there was "nothing legal about the way the government has conducted these operations. They fall far short of our international obligations".
The Greens plan to call in parliament for more details on the Sri Lanka case.