News National Spate of boat turnbacks sparks warning of more arrivals

Spate of boat turnbacks sparks warning of more arrivals

Australian Home Minister Home Affairs Minister Peter Dutton, center, addresses the media with Sri Lanka's navy commander Piyal De Silva, left, and the head of Operation Australia's Sovereign Borders Major General Craig Furini. Photo: AAP
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Boatloads of Sri Lankan asylum seekers have been risking the perilous journey to Australia amid warnings that more could be on the way.

Australian pilots helped save dozens of asylum seekers from drowning at sea 10 days ago when their vessel with 41 people on board started to sink in the Indian Ocean.

It is the second vessel to attempt to reach Australia in the past month, and the third since March.

Several other boats are believed to have been detected in recent weeks.

An Australian surveillance aircraft assisted members of the Sri Lankan Navy to rescue those on board.

Opposition Home Affairs spokeswoman Kristina Keneally issued a tweet accusing the Federal Government of halting aerial surveillance earlier this year.

Ms Keneally demanded the government explain why there had been a “lengthy hiatus” to border patrols before they were resumed periodically in February.

Operation Sovereign Borders boss Craig Furini, who is in Sri Lanka with Home Affairs Minister Peter Dutton, praised the country’s navy for pulling off the recent rescue.

“This highlights the very real danger of attempting these journeys,” Major General Furini told The Australian.

“Before (Operation Sovereign Borders) started in 2013 more than 1200 drowned at sea attempting such journeys at sea. Since Operation Sovereign Borders began, there has been none.”

sri lanka asylum boat
A boatload of Sri Lankan asylum seekers was intercepted by Australia’s Border Force in May. Photo: AAP

Mr Dutton made people smuggling his priority during a lightning trip to Sri Lanka, the first Australian ministerial visit since the country’s deadly Easter bombings.

The Home Affairs minister focused on boat people in high-level talks with Sri Lanka’s President Maithripala Sirisena, Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe and his ministerial counterpart in Colombo on Tuesday.

“The purpose of the visit is to prosecute Operation Sovereign Borders’ interests and to engage Sri Lankan authorities on counter-terrorism matters,” Mr Dutton’s spokeswoman told News Corp Australia.

“We greatly value the ongoing co-operation on regional maritime security.”

It comes after a boat carrying 20 Sri Lankan asylum seekers was intercepted off Australia last week and amid fears more boats may have set out as people smugglers anticipated a change in government after the recent general election.

The asylum seekers were returned by plane to Sri Lanka.

Mr Dutton has said the boat left in early May and people smugglers were trying to test the re-elected government’s resolve.

Mr Dutton, who arrived on the island on Monday for a two-day visit, laid a wreath at the altar of St Sebastian church, one of the three churches and three hotels hit in the Easter Sunday suicide bombings on April 21. The attacks left 257 dead, 113 of them at St Sebastian.

Mr Dutton said Australia would also help Sri Lanka rebuild after the attacks.

“We’re here to continue to provide support as Sri Lanka rebuilds, particularly its tourism market, but the economy otherwise off the back of these horrific attacks,” he said.