Australian minister to visit Sri Lanka amid boat dispute

Australian minister to visit Sri Lanka amid boat dispute

COLOMBO - Australia's immigration minister will visit Colombo this week for talks on illegal immigration following international concern at his country's handling of Sri Lankan asylum-seekers, it was announced Sunday.

Scott Morrison is due to meet top officials from President Mahinda Rajapakse's government when he arrives Wednesday, an official told AFP.

"He (Morrison) will of course talk about illegal immigration and will also participate in a ceremony to formally hand over a patrol boat that Australia gifted us last year," said foreign ministry spokesman Satya Rodrigo.

It was expected to be used to patrol Sri Lankan waters and halt boats leaving the country with asylum-seekers bound for Australia.

Sri Lanka has already taken charge of a boat donated by Australia last year for use against people-smuggling.

Both Sri Lankan and Australian authorities have declined to comment on the case of some 200 Sri Lankan asylum-seekers in two boats who were reportedly intercepted at sea by the Australian navy in Australian waters in recent weeks.

Australian media has reported that they were screened at sea for possible refugee status before being handed over to the Sri Lankan navy.

The UN has expressed "profound concern" at the reports, while legal experts warned that Australia risked breaching international law with the apparent screening process.

The Sri Lankan navy has denied sending out a boat to take back some of the asylum-seekers.

But official sources in Colombo have said talks were underway to bring back up to 50 people refused entry to Australia.

Concern has been mounting over the fate of the reportedly 153 Tamil Sri Lankan asylum-seekers on board one boat and the 50 on another who were intercepted.

Under its tough policy on tackling boatpeople, Prime Minister Tony Abbott's conservative government has been turning vessels back to Indonesia from where most originate.

But this is believed to be the first time one would have been returned to Sri Lanka.

Rights activists have criticised Abbott for saying everyone in Sri Lanka is "infinitely better off due to the cessation of civil war". The US and European Union member states have said rights abuses against the ethnic Tamil minority continued even after the war's end in 2009.

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