A group of asylum seekers whose wooden boat made it to within 500 metres of the Cocos Islands have been flown back to Sri Lanka in the cover of night, in a highly-secretive operation, the Sydney Morning Herald reported.
The small boat was intercepted close to the Indian Ocean archipelago, about halfway between Australia and Sri Lanka, in rough weather on Monday morning. Then, local eyewitnesses said, it was carrying an estimated 12 asylum seekers.
But on Friday morning another local witness, who asked not to be named, said there were more than 12 asylum seekers on board, and said the group included women and children – including at least one infant.
He said the asylum seekers were transferred from the Ocean Protector customs vessel on to a smaller boat, before being taken to West Island, where they were loaded onto a bus.
Australian officials covered up all the windows, in an attempt to shield what was happening from a gathering group of locals.
But at least one local photographer was able to capture what transpired. It’s understood he is negotiating to sell his photographs.
It is understood to be the first boat in about two years to make it so close to the Cocos Islands, although the government has turned back at least one other boat in the past year.
Immigration Minister Peter Dutton refused to say whether the chartered airbus was carrying asylum seekers, reported the ABC.
His office did not return calls on Friday morning but flight records show a plane with registration identical to the plane photographed by locals on the Cocos Islands’ airport departed Cocos Island for Colombo, the Sri Lankan capital, overnight.
The asylum route to the Cocos Islands opened up in earnest in 2012, when Sri Lanka’s senior envoy in Canberra confirmed his government recently stopped a boat carrying more than 110 people departing for Australia via the Indian Ocean.
Before this, people-smuggling syndicates had not historically targeted Cocos Islands, preferring to send boats to Australian territory closer to Indonesia – either Christmas Island, south of Java, or Ashmore Reef off West Timor.
The distance between Ashmore Reef and the Cocos Islands is more than 4000 kilometres, a massive expanse to patrol. (Colombo Gazette)