Australia says it returns 41 Sri Lankan nationals to authorities

Australian Immigration Minister Scott Morrison speaks to the Lowy Institute for International Policy in Sydney on May 9, 2014. Australian border patrol personnel intercepted a Sri Lankan asylum seeker vessel west of the Cocos Islands last week and tr
Australian Immigration Minister Scott Morrison speaks to the Lowy Institute for International Policy in Sydney on May 9, 2014. Australian border patrol personnel intercepted a Sri Lankan asylum seeker vessel west of the Cocos Islands last week and transferred the 41 people to Sri Lankan authorities on Sunday, Australian immigration minister Scott Morrison said in a statement. -- PHOTO: AFP

SYDNEY (REUTERS) - The Australian government said on Monday it returned 41 Sri Lankan asylum seekers to their country's authorities at sea after intercepting them in a boat suspected of illegally entering Australian waters.

Australian border patrol personnel intercepted the vessel west of the Cocos Islands last week and transferred the 41 people to Sri Lankan authorities on Sunday, Australian immigration minister Scott Morrison said in a statement.

The transfer follows pressure on Sri Lanka from rights groups and the West for alleged human rights violations during the final phase of the war against Tamil separatists that ended in 2009.

The United Nations has expressed concern about Australia's tough handling of asylum seekers.

Last week the Australian government refused to comment after media reported it intercepted the Sri Lankan asylum seekers.

The 37 Sinhalese and four Tamil Sri Lankan nationals were handed to Sri Lankan authorities off the Port of Batticaloa in Sri Lanka after being subjected to an "enhanced screening process", Morrison said.

"The government will continue to reject the public and political advocacy of those who have sought to pressure the government into a change of policy," he said.