Australian minister under fire for not meeting Tamil groups on Sri Lanka trip

Australian minister under fire for not meeting Tamil groups on Sri Lanka trip
Australia's Minister of Immigration and Border Protection Scott Morrison speaks at a news conference during his working visit to Malaysia, at the Malaysian Maritime Enforcement Agency office in Putrajaya February 5, 2014.

COLOMBO - A Tamil group criticised Australia's immigration minister on Thursday for visiting northern Sri Lanka without meeting Tamil leaders, days after Australia returned a boat of asylum seekers, including Tamils, under its hardline border security policy.

Some of the 41 Sri Lankans intercepted and sent home by Australia said on Tuesday they had been mistreated by Australian Customs, accusations Immigration Minister Scott Morrison denied.

A second boat carrying 153 Sri Lankan asylum seekers remained in legal limbo as the Australian High Court considered whether their interception was legal.

Australian Prime Minister Tony Abbott came to power last September partly because of his tough stance on asylum seekers. His government has touted its success in blocking such boats, saying there have been no illegal arrivals since last December.

During a visit on Wednesday to the northern city of Jaffna, Morrison met the governor of the Northern Province, G.A. Chandrasiri, a presidential appointee.

Tamil groups were upset Morrison did not meet the province's chief minister, C.V. Vigneswaran, the leader of the Tamil National Alliance, the party that finished first in last year's regional election.

"He did not meet any single Tamil representative or civil society group," Tamil National Alliance spokesman Suresh Premachandran told Reuters. "I still don't know the intention of his brief visit. He may want to show that he visited Jaffna. But he did not speak to any Tamils."

Most of the group returned to Sri Lanka are members of the majority Sinhalese community and not minority Tamils, who have alleged persecution by Sri Lankan authorities since the defeat of Tamil Tiger separatists in the north in 2009.

Morrison's schedule was organised by the Sri Lankan government, a spokesman for the minister said, adding that he has previously visited the north with members of the Tamil community.

He was visiting Sri Lanka to hand over two patrol boats to strengthen the island nation's surveillance against people smuggling.

"The purpose was to hand over the boats on the invitation of defence ministry. The date was fixed long before the people tried to enter Australia," Sri Lankan Deputy Foreign Minister Neomal Perera said. "It was unfortunate the visit came during these days."

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