The return of Sri Lankans from Christmas Island in Australia to Colombo overnight on a Government charter jet has fuelled speculation that Australian Border Force has intercepted a suspected asylum vessel in the past week, Th Australian newspaper reported.
A plane chartered by the Department of Immigration and Border Protection has left the Australian territory in the early hours of last morning with about 20 people — some of them guards and interpreters — onboard. Sri Lankan nationals were led up the steps of the plane with a guard on each side.
Christmas Island residents yesterday linked the deportations to an unusual spectacle last Thursday when two of the navy’s rigid inflatable vessels were seen towing a small boat close to the horizon.
The last known intercept of an asylum vessel on its way to Australia was in March.
The March monthly update on the department’s website stated: “During this period, Australian authorities worked with the government of Sri Lanka to return 25 people who were detected and intercepted attempting to reach Australia illegally by boat, in accordance with Australia’s protection obligations.’’
A spokesman for Immigration Minister Peter Dutton yesterday declined to confirm any new intercept.
The Sri Lankan Government has been willing for some years to swiftly take back failed asylum-seekers stopped en route to Australia.
A fast-tracked method of returning asylum seekers was developed under the Gillard Labor government, when authorities first tested an expedited screening out process on Sri Lankans intercepted near Cocos (Keeling) Islands. This involves asking intercepted passengers a short series of questions while they are still at sea, such as “why did you come here?”. If the answers are not deemed to trigger Australia’s obligations, the passengers are returned to their country of origin by boat or plane.
Australia’s largest patrol vessel Ocean Shield visited Sri Lanka and India last month, the first official visit by an Australian Border Force vessel to those countries.
Border Force commissioner Roman Quaedvlieg was there to receive the vessel at Chennai Port.
“Australia values our strong relationships with Sri Lanka and India,” Mr Quaedvlieg said.
“Ocean Shield’s visit was an important opportunity to strengthen co-operation and support our common goal of ensuring safety and security across our maritime domains,’’ he said. The Ocean Shield crew exchanged expertise in “operational techniques” with the Sri Lankan navy and Indian Coast Guard.
During the sustained wave of boats between 2008 and 2013, Christmas Island sometimes held more than 6000 immigration detainees.
It now operates one detention centre with fewer than 1000 men, but many of them are not asylum-seekers. Instead, the centre has become a place to hold mostly men who are citizens of other countries and have committed crimes while living in Australia. Once their jail term ends, they are transferred to immigration detention to await deportation.