Australia said on Monday 41 asylum seekers had been handed to Sri Lankan authorities at sea, another step that has galvanized opposition to the government's hardline policy against illegal arrivals and raised fears of rights abuses in Sri Lanka.
Australian border patrol personnel 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 people on board were transferred to Sri Lankan authorities on Sunday, Australian Immigration Minister Scott Morrison said in a statement.
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.
The government had refused to comment on those reports last week. Morrison's statement on Monday gave no explanation of the discrepancy between the number of people handed back on Sunday and the number of vessels and people reported last week.
Morrison's office did not respond to an email seeking clarification.
The statement said the vessel carrying the 41 people was at no stage in distress and that the transfer had been carried out in "mild" sea conditions just outside the Sri Lankan port of Batticaloa. All those people aboard the vessel were safe and accounted for, it said, without providing any more detail.
The UNHCR 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.
Morrison said the 37 Sinhalese and four Tamil Sri Lankan nationals were subjected to what he described as an "enhanced screening process" before they were handed over.
"The government will continue to reject the public and political advocacy of those who have sought to pressure the government into a change of policy," he said in the statement.
"Their advocacy, though well intentioned, is naively doing the bidding of people smugglers who have been responsible for almost 1,200 deaths at sea," Morrison said.
Morrison will travel to Sri Lanka this week to talk with government and defense officials and attend a ceremony to mark Australia's gift of two former patrol vessels to Sri Lanka.
While the Australian government's "Operation Sovereign Borders" program has repeatedly come under fire from international human rights groups, more than 70 percent of Australians support the government's border policy, including sending boats back when safe to do so, according to a recent poll by the Lowy Institute think tank.
Opposition Greens Party lawmaker Sarah Hanson-Young told the Australian Broadcasting Corp. there was "nothing legal about the way [the government] has conducted these operations. They fall far short of our international obligations".(Reuters)