COLOMBO, Sri Lanka—Australia on Wednesday defended returning dozens of Sri Lankan asylum seekers back home after intercepting them at sea and rejected allegations they were mistreated.
A Sri Lankan court released on bail the 41 people after they were detained on charges of leaving the country illegally. Police were still holding five alleged traffickers, including a Sri Lankan policeman, among them. Nine children were also freed.
The Sri Lankans were intercepted by Australia’s border patrol off the Cocos Islands in the Indian Ocean in late June, according to Australian Immigration Minister Scott Morrison. On Sunday, they were handed over to the Sri Lankan government after their refugee claims were assessed at sea and rejected, leading to protests in Australia by human rights advocates who say the migrants could face prosecution back home.
One of the asylum seekers, Damith Kaldera, said he was beaten up by an Australian officer and forced to kneel after he protested the alleged mistreatment of the migrants. He said the Australians took them farther out to sea and kept them there for a week without enough food and other essentials.
He said he acted as their spokesman because he spoke English.
Kaldera, 48, said the group set out from Batticaloa, a city on Sri Lanka’s east coast, with the intention of going to New Zealand. Each asylum seeker paid 150,000 rupees ($1,150) to people smugglers, with the promise of paying another 450,000 rupees ($3,460) after finding a job in New Zealand, he said.
Morrison on Wednesday rejected the allegations of mistreatment and praised the operation, saying, “The message to anyone who is thinking that they can get to Australia illegally by boat is that the way is closed.”
“Today is a symbol of strong partnership between Australia and Sri Lanka in dealing with people smuggling,” Morrison said in Sri Lanka’s capital of Colombo, where he handed over two Australian patrol vessels to boost the South Asia country’s surveillance against illegal migration.
Responding to the reports that the migrants were abused, he said: “I find those allegations offensive and I reject them absolutely.”
Later Morrison visited the country’s former war zone, the ethnic Tamil majority Northern Province, but did not meet Tamil political leaders. Tamils form the majority of those who set off on illegal voyages, citing persecution.
Lawmaker M.A Sumanthiran said that Tamil leaders are disappointed that Morrison met only the governor, an agent of the central government, but not the elected Tamil chief minister.
Tamils say they are still being persecuted by the government despite the end of a civil war between government forces and the Tamil Tiger rebels, who defeated five years ago.
The Australian government promised at a hearing Tuesday not to hand over another group of asylum seekers to Sri Lanka without three days’ notice following a court challenge and uproar from human rights groups.
Lawyers representing some of the asylum seekers on the latest intercepted boat went to the High Court to stop the 153 people on board from being returned. They are currently being held on an Australian customs vessel.
The court hearing marked the first time the Australian government acknowledged the second boat’s existence, and Morrison has not said where or when that boat was intercepted.
Sri Lanka has arrested at least 4,300 people trying to migrate to Australia since 2009, according to the Sri Lankan navy.