Twenty Sri Lankan asylum seekers have been flown back to their home country after their boat was intercepted en route to Australia, Australian media reported.
The Department of Home Affairs and Deputy Prime Minister Michael McCormack has confirmed authorities intercepted the boat last week and the asylum seekers had been returned to Sri Lanka.
According to reports in the Australian, the vessel, which was carrying at least one baby, was spotted in the Indian Ocean heading for the north-west coast.
The asylum seekers were detained for a few days on Christmas Island before being flown to Colombo on a government charter jet on Wednesday after their asylum claims were rejected.
The boat had left Sri Lanka in the first week of May, not long after the deadly Easter bombing attacks on hotels and churches. It is the first time in five years that asylum seekers attempting to reach Australia have been taken by sea to Christmas Island.
McCormack told ABC AM the asylum seekers were intercepted “and as with all these boats that come unauthorised [they were] turned back”. Asked if the asylum seekers had their claims processed on Christmas Island and what their basis for seeking asylum was, McCormack replied: “The vessel left Sri Lanka illegally in early May 2019, it was intercepted by Australian authorities and it has been turned back. “No, I’m not going to provide any more details because of security reasons – that’s always the case.” The UN has warned that Australia’s policy of pushing back boats containing asylum seekers is illegal under international law, and criticised previous instances of the forced return of people to Sri Lanka without proper assessment of their asylum claims.
Border Force said in a statement that Australia had now returned 186 people to Sri Lanka from 10 people smuggling boats since September 2013.