COLOMBO — Australia on Wednesday rejected accusations of mistreatment by Sri Lankan asylum seekers returned to the island nation, saying the move sent a strong message to those thinking of following in their footsteps.
Immigration Minister Scott Morrison was speaking in Colombo a day after some of the 37 Sinhalese and four Tamils said they were ill treated by Australian Customs officials at sea.
“I find those allegations offensive and reject them absolutely,” Morrison told reporters.
“Any venture … that thinks they can get to Australia, well, I think a very clear message is being said, particularly in the last few days: that venture will not prevail.”
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.
One of the asylum seekers, N.A. Nilantha, said Australian Customs officials acted “in an inhumane manner” before the transfer to the Sri Lankan navy.
“They knelt us down, they dragged us, holding our necks,” he told Reuters soon after he was released on bail in the southern port of Galle.
“They gave meat for a dog on board while we were given only a slice of bread. When we complained of being sick and having headaches, they said we were pretending. They did not treat us for any of our illnesses.”
Another accused customs officials of barring the asylum speakers from speaking to each other.
“In this ship, we were not allowed to talk,” said the father of three who travelled with his family and who spoke on condition of anonymity.
“…They gave us expired chocolates. When we asked for a basin for a baby less than two months old, they did not give us one. But they gave a basin to the dog. They bathed the dog with shampoo. They gave the dog a towel and two bed sheets, but we were not given anything.”
Most of the group returned to Sri Lanka were members of the majority Sinhalese community and not minority Tamils, who have alleged persecution by Sri Lankan authorities since Tamil separatists were defeated in the country’s civil in 2009.
Group members told Reuters they had been trying to reach New Zealand, not Australia, to seek jobs for a “better life”. One man said he had “no problem” with the Sri Lankan government.
Less clear are the origin and motives of a second boat of Sri Lankan asylum seekers, stuck in legal limbo as Australia’s High Court considers the legality of their interception.
Australia’s Tamil Refugee Council said of the 153 people on board the second boat, some 48 are from India’s 60,000-strong, unregistered Sri Lankan Tamil refugee community. At least 11 of those had been tortured in Sri Lanka, the council said.
About 60 million people live in India’s southern state of Tamil Nadu, dominated by ethnic Tamils.
The Organisation for Eelam Refugees’ Rehabilitation, based in the Tamil Nadu capital Chennai, said more than a quarter of those on board the second ship had been traced to refugee camps in the Indian state.
Some of the 42 people who boarded the boat from these camps were born in India, while others had lived in India for decades, the advocacy group’s founder, S.C. Chandrahasan, told Reuters.
Morrison quietly visited the city of Jaffna in the ethnic Tamil-dominated north of Sri Lanka during his whirlwind visit, where he met the governor of the Northern Province, G.A. Chandrasiri, a presidential appointee.
Morrison did not meet chief minister, C.V. Vigneswaran, the leader of the Tamil National Alliance, the party that finished first in last year’s regional election and controls a regional assembly, or any Tamil civil society groups.
The 41 asylum seekers picked up from the first boat were handed over by Australia to Sri Lanka in a secret operation over the weekend. Morrison rejected claims that Australia had breached international conventions.
“The Australian government takes very seriously our responsibility, as well as the Sri Lankan government people’s safety and the various obligations that they have under the various conventions to which we are signatories,” he said.
Morrison was in Colombo to hand over two patrol boats to Sri Lanka to strengthen surveillance against people smuggling.
Back in Australia, Prime Minister Tony Abbott vowed not to bow to “moral blackmail” following reports of suicide bids by female asylum seekers at a detention centre on Christmas Island.
Opposition Greens lawmaker Sarah Hanson-Young, whose party is one of the strongest critics of the government’s “Operation Sovereign Borders” immigration policy, said she had spoken to people inside the centre who reported that almost 10 mothers were on suicide watch this week.