Returned Sri Lanka migrants vent fury at Australia

Returned Sri Lanka migrants vent fury at Australia
A Sri Lankan asylum seeker (right) sent back by Australia prepares to enter the magistrate's court in the southern port district of Galle on July 8.

GALLE, Sri Lanka - Sri Lankan migrants aboard a boat that was controversially turned back mid-sea by Australia slammed Canberra on Tuesday, claiming they were abused, given little food and water and treated "worse than dogs".

The group of 41 migrants, including four women and nine children, appeared in a court in the southern Sri Lankan city of Galle, where most were granted bail on charges of illegally leaving the country.

As anxious relatives waited outside the colonial-era building, magistrate Umesh Kalansuriya granted bail to 27 of the group, remanded five into custody and discharged the children.

Some of the women, one carrying a baby and clutching their children's hands, wept as police told the magistrate that the group had broken immigration laws, a charge that carries a maximum penalty of two years.

Australia has come under fire over the transfer, with experts warning that repelling migrants after screening them as potential asylum-seekers at sea appeared to be inadequate under international law.

Some of the migrants, most of whom were from Sri Lanka's majority Sinhalese community, told AFP they had been trying to get to New Zealand rather than Australia where they hoped they could find work.

L.A. Nilantha accused Australian customs officials of locking them up and giving them little food and water after they were picked up at sea by the Australian navy.

"They gave me a phone to speak with someone I did not know," said Nilantha, a former shop owner. "I could not understand the language and the line was also very bad. I never had an opportunity to tell them what I wanted."

'Go back to Sri Lanka'

Another migrant said they were racially abused and denied medication, while some attempted a hunger strike to protest their treatment.

"They kept on saying 'You f**king Sri Lankan, go back to f**king Sri Lanka'," the migrant, who declined to give his name, said.

"When I asked for medicine for a rash I had developed after boarding the boat, they said they could not help." Another unnamed passenger said they were given food past their expiry date adding "they treated us worse than dogs".

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