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Sri Lanka detains asylum-seekers in high seas

[Reuters, Tuesday, 24 November 2009 09:17 No Comment]

Sri Lanka’s navy has detained at least 100 people trying to sail illegally to Australia, an official said on Tuesday, days after a boatload of asylum-seekers triggered a diplomatic standoff between Australia and Indonesia.

The number of people trying to escape the island has increased in the months following the end of the 25-year separatist war, with many minority Tamils alleging mistreatment and lack of basic rights, activists say.

Four fishing trawlers packed with immigrants and heading for Australia were seized in the high seas off southern Sri Lanka over the past two days, navy spokesman Athula Senerath said.

"It is a big human smuggling network. People had paid large sums of money to be able to emigrate," he said.

Earlier this month, Australian customs picked up 78 Sri Lankans at sea after they sent a distress call in Indonesia’s search and rescue zone. The incident stoked tensions between Indonesia and Australia over how to handle the asylum-seekers.

The immigrants were later ferried to a detention centre in Indonesia after a guarantee from Australia that they would be resettled in Australia within a month.

The arrival of several boats carrying asylum seekers in recent months, many of them Sri Lankans displaced by the civil war, has ignited a hot-button political issue in Australia.

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