A group of distressed would be asylum seekers from Sri Lanka had been saved from drowning at sea while trying to reach Australia after their derelict boat was found adrift in the middle of the Indian Ocean by an Australian aerial patrol, The Daily Telegraph reported.
The Daily Telegraph has learned that the vessel containing six Sri Lankan men was without engine power and had been at sea for several weeks when it was located by a surveillance aircraft operating under Operation Sovereign Borders.
An OSB operational source said the group would have almost certainly perished on the high seas had they not been found after a people smuggling interception turned into a rescue mission in international waters.
It is believed to be the first people smuggling venture since the election.
The men were all assessed as being economic refugees, and in accordance with international non-refoulement law were returned to Sri Lanka yesterday by plane
The source confirmed that the operation was launched when Australia received intelligence from Sri Lankan agencies that a boat was believed to have left Sri Lanka and was most likely headed toward Australia.
Propaganda chatter also had been picked up between the diaspora community in Australia and Sri Lanka, falsely claiming that the latest people smuggling venture had been successful in reaching Australian shores.
But the OSB source said that when the boat was detected by air it was in poor state and would have sunk had it not been found.
The engine had ceased working and the men were described as being in a “distressed” state.
They had been at sea for at least two weeks. The men were returned by plane from an unknown location after being assessed aboard an Australian vessel
Officials expressed surprise that people were still falling prey to smuggling ventures out of Sri Lanka when it was widely known that they would be classed as economic refugees and returned.
Under the former Rudd and Gillard Governments, an average of one boat a month was being launched from Sri Lanka.
Immigration and Border Protection Minister Peter Dutton last night confirmed the operation.
“Our Sri Lankan partners provided advice that this vessel might be targeting Australia so we were ready and waiting to locate and detain the boat,” Mr Dutton said.
“We have worked cooperatively with Sri Lanka for several years now and since Operation Sovereign Borders began in 2013 every Sri Lankan boat that has attempted to come to Australia illegally, has failed.
“This return shows that there has not been, and will not be, any change to Australia’s robust border protection policies.”
“People should not believe people smugglers’ lies and risk their lives trying to get to Australia in unsafe boats; they will be turned back and will have wasted their money.” (Colombo Gazette)