COLOMBO (REUTERS) - Australia's immigration minister, defending Canberra's policy of turning back boats of asylum seekers, visited a focal point of Sri Lanka's 26-year civil war against Tamil separatists, but came under fire for meeting no Tamil political or civil groups.
Scott Morrison was visiting Sri Lanka to hand over two patrol boats to strengthen the island nation's surveillance against people smuggling.
His visit coincided with accusations by Sri Lankans intercepted and sent home that Australian customs officials had mistreated them.
A second boat carrying 153 Sri Lankan asylum seekers remained in legal limbo as the Australian High Court considered whether their interception was legal.
Morrison and other Australian officials denied the allegations.
Most of the group returned to Sri Lanka were members of the majority Sinhalese community and not minority Tamils, who have alleged persecution by Sri Lankan authorities since the defeat of the separatists in the civil war in 2009.
During a visit on Wednesday to Jaffna, the Tamil-dominated city in Sri Lanka's north, Morrison met the governor of the Northern Province, G.A. Chandrasiri, a presidential appointee. Local Tamil groups said he did not meet chief minister, C.V. Vigneswaran, the leader of the Tamil National Alliance, the party that finished first in last year's regional election and controls a regional assembly, or any civil society groups.
"He did not meet any single Tamil representative or civil society group," Tamil National Alliance spokesman Suresh Premachndran told Reuters. "I still don't know the intention of his brief visit. He may want to show that he visited Jaffna. But he did not speak to any Tamils."
Morrison's office did not immediately reply to emails and calls about his visit to Jaffna.
The United Nations has launched an inquiry into war crimes allegedly committed by both Sri Lankan state forces and Tamil rebels in the final months of the conflict, saying the government has failed to investigate properly. Sri Lanka rejects such allegations as interference in its internal affairs.
While Sri Lanka says many asylum seekers are economic migrants, rights groups say Tamils seek asylum to prevent torture, rape and other violence at the hands of the military.
The 37 Sinhalese and four Tamils on the first boat were returned to Sri Lanka over the weekend and appeared in court in the port city of Galle. Group members told Reuters they had been trying to reach New Zealand, not Australia, to seek jobs for a "better life".
One man said he had "no problem" with the Sri Lankan government. Five people suspected of being the ringleaders of a people smuggling operation were detained and 27 were released on bail. All children were released without charge.
Asked by reporters in Colombo if he was concerned the 41 would be mistreated by Sri Lankan authorities, Morrison said:"No, I'm not."
Less clear are the origin and motives of the second boat of Sri Lankan asylum seekers. Australia's Tamil Refugee Council said of the 153 people on the second boat, some 48 are from India's 60,000-strong, unregistered Sri Lankan Tamil refugee community. At least 11 of those had been tortured in Sri Lanka, the council said.
About 60 million people live in India's southern state of Tamil Nadu, dominated by ethnic Tamils. The Organisation for Eelam Refugees' Rehabilitation, based in Tamil Nadu, said more than a quarter of those on the second ship had been traced to refugee camps in the Indian state.
Morrison dismissed as "offensive" claims of mistreatment made by some of the returned asylum seekers. "Any venture ... that thinks they can get to Australia, well, I think a very clear message is being said, particularly in the last few days: that venture will not prevail."
One of the asylum seekers, N.A. Nilantha, said Australian Customs officials acted "in an inhumane manner" before the transfer to the Sri Lankan navy. "They knelt us down, they dragged us, holding our necks," he told Reuters soon after he was released on bail in the southern port of Galle.
"They gave meat for a dog on board while we were given only a slice of bread. When we complained of being sick and having headaches, they said we were pretending. They did not treat us for any of our illnesses."