Australia has intercepted a boatload of 41 asylum seekers from Sri Lanka in the Indian Ocean and handed them back to Sri Lankan authorities, the government said on Monday.
It was the first acknowledgement by the government after a week of silence over reports Australian authorities had intercepted two boats of Sri Lankans trying to reach Australia.
It was the first time an asylum seeker boat has been intercepted by Australian authorities and those on board returned immediately to their country of origin.
The government continued to refuse comment on the fate of a larger boat carrying 153 Tamils.
Monday’s statement from Immigration Minister Scott Morrison said the 41 Sri Lankans were transferred on Sunday from an Australian border protection vessel to the Sri Lankan Navy outside the Sri Lankan port of Batticaloa.
“All persons intercepted and returned were subjected to an enhanced screening process, as also practiced by the previous government, to ensure compliance by Australia with our international obligations under relevant conventions,” the statement said.
Four of those transferred on Sunday were Tamils, the rest were Sinhalese. One had been deemed a possible refugee during the on-board screening process by Australian officials, but he had decided to stay with the 40 people being returned to Sri Lanka.
Mr. Morrison’s statement said the boat was in good condition when it was intercepted west of the Cocos Islands in the Indian Ocean, about half way between Sri Lanka and Australia.
Mr. Morrison is to visit Sri Lanka this week to attend a handover ceremony for two patrol boats Australia is giving the Sri Lankan Navy.