By Colin Packham
SYDNEY (Reuters) – A senior Australian minister will meet Sri Lanka’s leaders in Colombo later on Tuesday to discuss border control and security matters following reports that the Australian navy had intercepted and returned several boats carrying asylum seekers.
Minister for Home Affairs Peter Dutton will meet Sri Lanka’s President Maithripala Sirisena and Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe to discuss Australia’s policy of returning boats carrying asylum seekers to their origin point, the minister’s spokeswoman said.
The hardline policy, “Operation Sovereign Borders”, has attracted widespread criticism abroad, but has support within Australia.
Last week, the government said the navy had stopped a vessel originating from Sri Lanka that was carrying 20 men and woman who were attempting to travel to Australia.
They were returned to Sri Lanka after a few days, Australia’s conservative government said.
Dutton travelled to Colombo on Monday amid Australian media reports that more six vessels originating from Sri Lanka have since been intercepted by the navy.
The minister’s spokeswoman declined to comment on the reports that more boats had been intercepted.
“The purpose of the visit is to prosecute ‘Operation Sovereign Borders’ interests and to engage Sri Lankan authorities on counter-terrorism matters,” she said in an emailed statement.
If asylum seekers make it to Australia they are sent to camps in Papua New Guinea and the tiny South Pacific island of Nauru indefinitely.
The UN refugee agency, a fierce critic of the Australia’s strategy, said on Monday it was seeking urgent clarification from Canberra on the return of asylum seekers to Sri Lanka.
“We were neither notified of the arrival of the asylum-seekers, nor of their subsequent removal,” Babar Baloch, a spokesman for the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees.
(Reporting by Colin Packham in Sydney; Additional reporting by Alexandra Ulmer in Colombo; Editing by Simon Cameron-Moore)