Lured by the promise of safe haven in Australia, but abandoned in the mid-sea, 120 Tamil refugees from across various Sri Lankan refugee camps in the State were rescued from a stranded fishing boat off the Velankanni coast on Saturday.

The mechanised fishing trawler was abandoned by the boat’s master some 15 km east of Nagapattinam, defence sources said in Chennai.

The refugees, including 20 women and 22 children, from camps in Coimbatore, Tiruchi, Vellore, Chennai and Tirunelveli had converged in Velankanni for the journey that commenced just after midnight on Saturday. They had paid between Rs. 1.20 lakh and Rs. 2.30 lakh each to make the journey after an agent promised them settlement and employment in Australia.

The boat, with spare food and water supplies and unhygienic conditions, failed due to a snag some four hours into the journey. The boat driver jumped into the waters and boarded a faster craft straddling the main boat, an official told The Hindu.

Following this, one of the refugees contacted his brother in Tenkasi in the wee hours of Saturday, who alerted the 'Q' Branch.

The Maritime Rescue and Coordination Centre received information around 6.45 a.m.

According to Com. Udhal Singh, Commanding Officer, Indian Coast Guard Station, Karaikal, ICGS Rajshree was deputed for search and rescue, and a Dornier aircraft was dispatched for assistance. The boat was towed to the Karaikal port late evening.

“The ship reached the boat in an hour. They were given food and first aid. There was a pregnant woman among the refugees,” a senior CG official said. “The boat neither had a name nor a registration number. It was too small to transport 120 people. We are investigating who arranged the dangerous voyage,” he said.

Speaking to The Hindu, Mr. Munusamy said they would be allowed to rest before they are handed over to the Coastal Security Group. They were taken to the Nagapattinam Collectorate later in the evening.

Last September, 65 Sri Lankan nationals set off from Point Pedro in Sri Lanka and were stranded and rescued off the Velankanni coast.

There were a few instances of boats sinking off Christmas Islands near Australia resulting in the death of asylum-seekers. In a bid to discourage people from taking the risk, Australian Consul-General for South India David Holly recently said those travelling by boats to Australia would be transferred to Nauru for processing of their claims and there was no guarantee that they would ever enter Australia.