Australia gives Sri Lanka boats to tackle asylum-seekers

SYDNEY (AFP) - Australia said on Sunday it would give Sri Lanka two patrol boats to tackle people-smuggling in the Indian Ocean, but the government came under fire for collaborating with Colombo.

Canberra is hoping that boats can be detected before they leave the island's waters as the Australian government intensifies efforts to deter asylum-seekers arriving by boat, a sensitive political issue.

While many boats make the precarious journey from Indonesia, 120 left from Sri Lanka last year for what can be a three-week voyage, according to official figures, although only 14 have been detected so far in 2013.

"Australia is providing training with the patrol boats, which will operate alongside the Sri Lankan Navy's existing capability to intercept people-smuggling efforts originating in Sri Lankan waters," Prime Minister Tony Abbott's office said in a statement.

"Our cooperation with Sri Lanka in the region is important as it is effective.

"Sri Lanka provides strong support against people-smuggling operations and Australian agencies work closely with their Sri Lankan counterparts."

Sri Lankan police have arrested dozens of people for organising illegal boat trips to Australia, including several naval personnel - an embarrassment for Colombo, which had maintained there was no senior-level official collusion with the smugglers.

According to reports the patrol boats are 38-metre vessels which have a complement of 12 sailors. They have been a mainstay of Australian maritime surveillance since the late 1990s but are now being phased out.

Abbott is currently in Sri Lanka for the Commonwealth Heads of Government Meeting and finalised the agreement with President Mahinda Rajapakse as part of talks.

The summit has been overshadowed by allegations regarding the bloody end in 2009 to Sri Lanka's 37-year civil war. Australian Greens leader Christine Milne slammed Abbott's cooperation with the Colombo authorities.

"I am devastated and heartbroken at the thought of Australia assisting a disgraced government to suppress and control its citizens," she said.

"Sri Lanka is not a transit country (for boatpeople). People are escaping from torture and abuse."

Labor frontbencher Tony Burke, a former immigration minister, said he wanted more details on the agreement.

"There is a lot of questions about what they've announced," he told the ABC.

"I'm not sure how it works... because you are not dealing with a transit country. There may be some people who claim to be directly seeking asylum."

According to the United Nations and rights groups, as many as 40,000 Sri Lankan civilians may have died as troops loyal to the mainly Sinhalese government routed the Tamil Tiger rebel movement in its last stronghold in Jaffna.

Under Australia's hardline asylum-seeker policies, all boat arrivals are transferred to poverty-stricken Papua New Guinea or Nauru in the Pacific for processing. Even if their asylum claims succeed, they will not be settled in Australia.