by Amanda Hodge | in Colombo
THE Sri Lankan navy has called for Australia to send back large numbers of asylum-seekers as a real deterrent to people-smugglers, and warned that its efforts to help the Gillard government combat the problem were rapidly draining its scarce resources.
Senior naval officials have also flagged the possibility of Australia lending the island nation an ocean-going operational vessel so it can conduct patrols in a high-seas choke lane used by asylum-seeker vessels – an area currently beyond its capacity.
The comments came as Sri Lanka was poised to repatriate a group of 27 Tamil asylum-seekers this weekend – the first to be turned back on the high seas – after a co-ordinated rescue effort with a French super tanker about 500km from Sri Lanka’s coast and well outside its ocean territory.
Naval operations director N. Attygalle told The Weekend Australian yesterday he understood the difficulties in turning back boats – as proposed by Tony Abbott – but Sri Lanka would have no compunction in doing so if it had greater capacity to patrol further outside its waters.
“If (Australia) turns the boats around, then these guys (traffickers) will just pull the plug, the boat will start sinking and you will have to assist them because it’s in your waters.
“So the best way is deportation,” Commodore Attygalle said.
“Our vessels are not capable of going that far, because we’re only a small navy and right now we only have two ocean-going operational vessels.”
Commodore Attygale said if the navy or coastguard could “lend them a ship”, Sri Lanka could patrol the area with Australian air surveillance help.
The number of Sri Lankans paying people-smugglers for passage to Australia has increased greatly, which has led to a string of asylum-seeker boats arriving at Cocos Island rather than Christmas Island, which is further away.
A Sri Lankan navy patrol boat this week responded to information from Australian authorities that an asylum-seeker vessel had issued a distress call, but it could not reach the boat in dangerous ocean conditions and instead persuaded a merchant ship to divert its course and rescue the passengers and crew.
All 27 will be transferred to a navy vessel in a potentially dangerous ocean repatriation this weekend. While Commodore Attygale said he was grateful to Australia’s Repatriation Co-ordination Centre for its efforts in the rescue, the navy’s chief intelligence officer cautioned that Sri Lanka’s ability to combat people-smuggling was hampered by the Australian government’s refusal to share intelligence gathered from asylum-seekers.
Naval intelligence director Nishantha Ulugetenne said more co-operation was needed between the nations’ immigration, Customs, border protection and coastguard services.
“When you start deporting, then this problem will ease for us,” Commodore Ulugetenne said.
“Sending just one man back from Australia (as the government did this week when it deported Tamil Dayan Anthony) will not help. More than 1500 Sri Lankans have landed in Australia in the last six months. What are you going to do with them? Screen them one by one?” Courtesy: The Australian