SRI Lanka’s high commissioner in Australia has endorsed the Coalition’s policy of turning around asylum boats as the most effective deterrent to people-smuggling.
But members of Australia’s Tamil community said asylum-seekers turned back to Sri Lanka would face persecution.
Sri Lankan authorities arrested 131 would-be refugees heading to Australia at the weekend, after intercepting fishing trawlers off the island’s east coast.
High commissioner Thisara Samarasinghe, a former navy chief, said turning vessels around at sea and sending them back to where they came from was the most effective deterrent for asylum-seekers.
“Turning the boats around will deter people,” Admiral Samarasinghe told ABC radio.
“I mean that is a physical barrier … they know that they can’t leave Sri Lankan shores.”
Admiral Samarasinghe said once boats were turned around at sea there was “no other way” for asylum-seekers to attempt to reach Australia.
“They are not well educated, they don’t have money.”
Australian Tamil Congress spokeswoman Varuni Bala said sending back asylum-seekers back to Sri Lanka was cruel.
“To address these issues, they should come to a genuine political solution,” Ms Bala told The Australian Online.
“If you put people out of the fear of persecution then no one will want to flee their homeland.
“Turning around the boats is just putting those people in more danger of being persecuted.”
While most asylum-seeker boats originate in Indonesia, there has been a recent spike in attempted crossings from Sri Lanka.
Immigration Minister Chris Bowen said Australia faced different challenges than Sri Lanka in turning around boats.
“If you turn a boat back either in Australian waters or in international waters, under international law they must be brought to the nearest port of call by the rescuing authority,” he said.
That could entice asylum-seekers to sink their boats to prompt a response from Australia’s maritime rescue body, he said.
“That is not the case in Sri Lanka … just as it’s not the case with any other disruption activities by a home country,” Mr Bowen said.
Additional reporting: AAP