Sri Lanka on Monday expressed willingness to take back the victims of migrant smuggling from the island nation to Australia once the formalities about their citizenship and place of origin were completed.
The assurance was conveyed by Sri Lankan President Mahinda Rajapaksa to the visiting Australian Foreign Minister, Stephen Smith. Mr. Smith is on a special mission here to seek Colombo’s help in tackling human trafficking.
The “continuing saga of boat people tragedy” has become a major headache for the ruling party in Australia. This was evident in a poll by the Sydney Morning Herald newspaper according to which Prime Minister Kevin Rudd’s popularity had fallen 3 points to 68 per cent after a month of political debate dominated by the refugee issue.
Mr. Rajapaksa offered to cooperate with Australia in bringing to justice those involved in human trafficking.
Dozens of boats carrying asylum seekers, many of them from Sri Lanka, reached Australian waters in 2009. The opposition in Australia has accused Mr. Rudd of loosening border controls.
A statement by the Sri Lankan Presidential secretariat quoted Mr. Rajapaksa as telling Mr. Smith that his government was concerned about the people who were being victimised and trafficked by criminal elements.
All asylum seekers intercepted at sea are now being detained on an island more than 800 km off the northwestern coast, where they have access to legal assistance and an independent review of decisions.
Australia has so far been successful in influencing 78 Sri Lankan asylum seekers to leave an Australian customs vessel moored in Indonesian waters. The asylum seekers, mostly Tamils, were picked up from their damaged boat by the Oceanic Viking customs vessel in Indonesia’s search and rescue zone last month.
They refused to leave the boat and enter the Tanjung Pinang detention centre on the island of Bintan, northwest of Jakarta, and said they wanted to be taken to Australia. Security clearance for the customs vessel to remain in Indonesian waters expires on November 13.
The case of the Australian government is that conflicts in countries such as Sri Lanka and Afghanistan have led to a global increase in refugees and it had nothing to do the government’s policies.
Mr. Rudd is also pressing the Indonesian government to combat the transit of asylum seekers through the archipelago of more than 17,000 islands. Australian and Indonesian officials are contemplating an agreement to tackle human trafficking before Mr. Rudd and Indonesian President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono meet in Singapore later in the week at the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation summit.
Mr. Rajapaksa’s office said that Mr. Smith had also conveyed Canberra’s interest in greater engagement in the rehabilitation and reconstruction in the North and East. The two countries also signed a memorandum of understanding concerning legal cooperation against the smuggling of migrants.
Meanwhile, visiting French Ambassador for Human Rights Franois Zimeray told Foreign Minister Rohitha Bogollagama that while terrorism was just a concept to most countries, for Sri Lanka it had been a reality for 30 years.
“The gap in comprehending this factor has contributed to a number of misunderstandings in the international community”, the Ambassador said during his meeting with the Minister.
A statement by the Foreign Ministry said Mr. Bogollagama told the visiting Ambassador that under the Presidency of Mahinda Rajapaksa, terrorism had been successfully eradicated from Sri Lanka, though much skepticism had been expressed by some sections of the international community on the possibility of such success.
Minister Bogollagama told the Ambassador that Sri Lanka required additional international assistance in de-mining in order to further expedite the process of resettlement.