Sri Lanka warns of dangers in mid-ocean asylum-seeker transfer

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A BOATLOAD of Sri Lankan asylum-seekers found near Cocos Island has been picked up by Australian authorities and will be handed over to the Sri Lankan navy, an official navy spokesman has confirmed.

A second senior Sri Lankan navy official told The Australian the asylum-seekers, picked up on a separate boat from that believed to have left southern India in mid-June, would be transferred to a Sri Lankan naval vessel in mid-ocean, in rough seas whipped up the monsoon.

The official said a naval vessel departed yesterday following several days of talks with Australian authorities about how to handle the impending asylum-seeker arrivals — which would have been the first to reach Australian territory in six months.

“What I know is that one of our ships has already sailed. We are making a rendezvous with an Australian vessel to take over the people,” he told The Australian.

“We do not know whether the boat they will be transferred from is an Australian civilian vessel, coastguard or navy, but this will be quite a mammoth task to transfer them because of the rough seas. The southwest monsoon has already started so it is going to be a bit of a task.”

The Sri Lankan navy’s official spokesman, Commodore Kosila, denied a Sri Lankan vessel had already been dispatched and said it had not yet been decided whether the transfer of asylum-seekers into Sri Lankan custody would happen at sea, as the senior navy official had said.

But he confirmed there would be a handover and that it involved asylum seekers from a second boat, believed to have left from Sri Lanka, and not the estimated 153 Sri Lankans who left the south Indian fishing port of Pondicherry on June 13.

“I am talking about a boat found closer to Cocos Island. There are two separate incidents,” Commodore Kosila told The Australian.

“We have been informed by the Australian Border Protection Services that they have rescued Sri Lankan asylum-seekers.

“Now they say they are bringing them on board this border protection ship and they will be handed over to the Sri Lankan navy. We do not know the number (of asylum-seekers involved),” he added.

The other boat, believed to be carrying 153 mostly-Tamil Sri Lankans from India, was 250km shy of Christmas Island last Friday, when occupants reported they were running out of water and oil. There was speculation it had been intercepted by an Australian Customs vessel.

Greens leader Christine Milne demanded Tony Abbott reveal their fate.

“Where are the people?” the Greens leader said in Sydney. “In the 21st century it is unacceptable that people can just disappear, we have to know what is going on and the Prime Minister must tell us.”

A spokesman for Immigration Minister Scott Morrison again declined to comment, saying only that the government would act “in accordance” with international obligations and protect the safety of life at sea.

“In accordance with the policy established by the Operation Sovereign Borders Joint Agency Task Force commander, the government does not comment on speculation or reporting regarding on water operations,” the spokesman said.

The Sri Lankan navy’s confirmation of its involvement is the first indication that Australian authorities both knew of at least one vessel and have been negotiating for its return.

Several mid-ocean transfers of asylum-seekers between Australian and Indonesian authorities have occurred in recent months. But the far more dangerous operation planned for late this week or early next week in the monsoonal Indian Ocean will be only the second time such a handover has taken place in as many years.

In July 2012, The Australian was on board the SLNS Samudura when it met a French supertanker, Euronav, for an ocean transfer of 28 Sri Lankans. The Euronav had been convinced by Australian authorities to rescue the asylum seekers and divert to Sri Lankan waters to meet the Samudura.

Though all 28 asylum-seekers, including four women and one child, were transferred safely, the operation ended with a sickening collision between the two vessels after monsoonal swells forced the far smaller Samudura back into the side of the 330-metre supertanker.

Prime Minister Tony Abbott announced last October on the sidelines of the Colombo-hosted Commonwealth Heads of Australian Governments Meeting (CHOGM) that Australia would donate two retired Australian Bay Class coastguard vessels to Sri Lanka to help its navy and coast guard prevent asylum-seekers leaving its shores.

The 10-year-old boats were refitted at a cost of more than $2 million.

But The Australian understands neither of the Bay Class vessels are suitable for

monsoonal ocean waters, and the same SLNS Samudura has been deployed for the

impending ocean transfer.

The move to transfer the asylum-seekers to Sri Lankan custody is a blatant violation

of Australia’s commitments to the UN refugee convention, which acknowledges a

right of protection for refugees who have a reasonable fear of persecution if returned

to their home country.

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