Sri Lankan authorities arrested another 131 would-be asylum seekers heading to Australia and seized a fishing trawler used for the people-smuggling operation, police and naval officials said Sunday.
The navy detected the trawler carrying 109 people off the island’s eastern coast on Saturday and it was being escorted to the port of Trincomalee, 260 kilometers (160 miles) northeast of the capital Colombo.
“The men on board were heading for Australia,” a navy official said asking not to be named. “We are handing over these people to the police for further investigations and necessary action.”
Police spokesman Ajith Rohana said 22 other people thought to be preparing to leave the island illegally aboard a different trawler were also arrested on Saturday.
The number of Sri Lankans detained on charges of illegally trying to leave the country has reached more than 250 over the last week.
The latest arrests come after a number of vessels have sunk at sea as illegal immigrants head to Australia from various poverty-hit countries, including Sri Lanka.
Some 94 people are believed to have drowned after two boats sank in recent weeks.
Australia is facing a steady influx of asylum seekers arriving by boat, many of whom use Indonesia as a transit hub, boarding leaky wooden vessels there after fleeing their homes countries.
While most boats originate in Indonesia, there has been a recent spike in attempted crossings from Sri Lanka.
Australia wants to deter boat-people by transferring them to Malaysia for processing, in exchange for accepting thousands of Malaysia’s registered refugees for resettlement.
But the minority government has been unable to pass the necessary legislation because of opposition in the Australian parliament.