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Australian immigration minister starts visit to Sri Lanka

Posted on Jul 09 2014 | IANS

Colombo, July 9 : Australian Immigration Minister Scott Morrison denied Wednesday that Sri Lankan asylum seekers were mistreated as he stared off on a visit to Sri Lanka.

Morrison insisted his government had upheld international laws when returning 41 Sri Lankans, despite being criticided by the UN, Xinhua reported.

The minister, who arrived in Sri Lanka Wednesday, attended a handing-over ceremony of two vessels to the Sri Lankan navy that will be used to prevent potential asylum seekers from leaving the island's shores.

Following the short ceremony, he also held talks with Sri Lankan President Mahinda Rajapaksa.

"I thank the Sri Lankan government and the Sri Lankan navy and all the other authorities here for the incredible work they have done to stop people smuggling. Now that work will continue and for people who think they can get to Australia this way, well I think a very clear message has been sent to them during the last few days. That venture will not prevail," he told reporters.

Morrison refused to comment on the controversy surrounding 153 Sri Lankans who were detected on board a boat last Friday and insisted the courts would take steps to deal with the issue.

He also dismissed allegations the asylum seekers were mistreated by Australian officials.

The Australian government has run into strong criticism from its opposition, refugee advocacy groups and the UN for returning 41 asylum seekers to Sri Lanka without due procedure.

The UN High Commissioner for Human Rights (UNHRC) Tuesday said it was deeply disturbed by the return of Sri Lankan asylum seekers to Sri Lanka by Australian authorities without proper screening and called for a full judicial review on the matter.

"It is not clear whether the Australian government has been given any assurances that the returnees will not face ill-treatment upon their return to Sri Lanka, nor is it clear how the Australian government plans to monitor their treatment," a UNHRC statement noted.

A Sri Lankan court Tuesday jailed five of the 41 asylum seekers and released 27 on bail while acquitting the minors under the age of 16, which included six children. The five remanded by the court are believed to be the people smugglers.

Sri Lanka has been the source of thousands of illegal migrants or boat people to Australia for the past few years.

Despite the end of a three-decade civil war in 2009, the number of asylum seekers from Sri Lanka has increased, pushing the Australian government to take tough measures to prevent them from reaching that country.

At least 1,500 people have been arrested by the navy while attempting to leave Sri Lanka by boat while the Australian government has returned around the same number as part of a stricter immigration policy.

The Australian government is working closely with the local navy to monitor and prevent boat people from Sri Lanka and have implemented awareness programmes to discourage locals from attempting to illegally migrate.

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