Australia on Wednesday rejected allegations by Sri Lankan asylum seekers returned to the island nation that they were mistreated and said their return sent a strong message to those thinking of following suit.
Immigration Minister Scott Morrison was speaking in Colombo a day after some of the 37 Sinhalese and four Tamils said they were ill treated by Australian Customs officials at sea.
“I find those allegations offensive and reject them absolutely,” Morrison told reporters.
“Any venture … that thinks they can get to Australia, well I think a very clear message is being said, particularly in the last few days: that venture will not prevail.”
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.
One of the asylum seekers, N.A. Nilantha, said Australian Customs officials acted “in an inhumane manner” before they were transferred to the Sri Lankan navy.
“They knelt us down, they dragged us holding our necks,” he told Reuters soon after he released on bail in the southern port of Galle.
“They gave meat for a dog on board while we were given only a slice of bread. When we complained of being sick and having headaches, they said we were pretending. They did not treat us for any of our illnesses.”
Australia’s hardline immigration policies are facing growing international scrutiny.
A group of 153 Sri Lankan asylum seekers remains stranded in legal limbo on the high seas as Australia’s High Court considers the legality of the interception of their boat.
The 41 asylum seekers picked up from a separate boat were handed over by Australia to Sri Lanka in a secret operation over the weekend.
Morrison rejected claims that Australia had breached international conventions by handing over the Sri Lankans.
“The Australian government takes very seriously our responsibility as well as the Sri Lankan government people’s safety and the various obligations that they have under the various conventions to which we are signatories,” he said.
Morrison was in Colombo to hand over two patrol boats to Sri Lanka to strengthen surveillance of people smuggling.
Australian Prime Minister Tony Abbott vowed not to bow to “moral blackmail” following reports of suicide bids by female asylum seekers at a detention centre on Christmas Island.
Opposition Greens lawmaker Sarah Hanson-Young, whose party is one of the strongest critics of the government’s “Operation Sovereign Borders” immigration policy, said she had spoken to people inside the centre who reported that almost 10 mothers were on suicide watch this week.
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