SYDNEY - Canberra confirmed Monday a boat load of Sri Lankan asylum-seekers who attempted to reach Australia have been handed back to Colombo, sparking sharp criticism after a week of secrecy.
Concern had been mounting over the fate of two boats reportedly intercepted by the Australian navy in Australian waters late last month.
There were claims that Australia could be breaking international law by screening them at sea and returning them involuntarily to a country in which they had a well-founded fear of persecution.
Under its policy of not commenting on "operational matters", Canberra refused to confirm the vessels even existed, keen to maintain its record of no boatpeople making it to Australia for six months.
It led to the UN refugee agency UNHCR expressing "profound concern" about the situation.
Immigration Minister Scott Morrison Monday finally acknowledged a boatload of 41 people had been handed back to Sri Lanka while not commenting on the fate of the other one, reportedly carrying 150 people.
"At no stage was the vessel in distress and all persons aboard the SIEV (suspected illegal entry vessel) were safe and accounted for," he said in a statement.
Morrison added that they were transferred at sea to Sri Lankan authorities just outside the Port of Batticaloa on Sunday.
"All persons intercepted and returned were subjected to an enhanced screening process ... to ensure compliance by Australia with our international obligations under relevant conventions," he said.
Morrison said only one person, a Sinhalese Sri Lankan, may have had a case for asylum but he opted to return voluntarily with the rest of the passengers.
His other option was being sent to Papua New Guinea or Nauru for offshore processing, with Australia no longer processing boatpeople on its territory.
The government's initial refusal to confirm any boats had been handed back to Sri Lanka angered human rights groups, who claimed Tamils could face torture, rape and long-term detention if they were returned.
Morrison said of those transferred Sunday, 37 were Sinhalese and only four were Tamil.
Labor opposition immigration spokesman Richard Marles slammed the operation and questioned the processing.
"Australia's international obligations are reliant upon a credible processing system and we have deep concerns about how that could have been performed by video link at sea in a way which gave an individual assessment, when all the time the boat was steaming towards Sri Lanka," he said.
Morrison's statement came days ahead of a visit to Colombo this week for talks on illegal immigration.
He is due to meet top officials from President Mahinda Rajapakse's government on Wednesday and will also participate in a ceremony to hand over a patrol boat Canberra has gifted Sri Lanka.
The boat is expected to be used to patrol Sri Lankan waters and halt vessels leaving the country with asylum-seekers bound for Australia.