Sri Lanka’s navy arrested a boatload of people heading to Australia and raised the number of would-be asylum seekers detained this month to a record 500, an official said Sunday.
A fishing trawler carrying 31 people was intercepted off the island’s western coast on Saturday, and another 20 were arrested on shore ready to board the vessel, the navy official said.
“We had the highest number of arrests this month,” said the official, who asked not to be named. “We stopped eight trawlers off the eastern coast and three off the western coast as they set off for Australia.”
The official said the figures were in contrast to 200 people arrested between May and June, and that the July arrests were the highest on record during a one-month period.
Most of the asylum seekers had paid up to 300,000 rupees ($2,300) as an advance for the perilous journey and were to give an additional 400,000 ($3,000) on reaching Australian shores, according to the official.
The would-be refugees have been handed over to the police Criminal Investigations Department for investigations, the official said, adding that most of them wanted to claim political asylum in Australia.
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 home countries.
While most boats originate in Indonesia, there has been a recent spike in the number of 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.