Returned Sri Lanka migrants vent fury at Australia

GALLE (AFP) - Sri Lankan migrants aboard a boat that was controversially turned back mid-sea by Australia slammed Canberra on Tuesday, claiming they were abused, given little food and water and treated "worse than dogs".

The group of 41 migrants, including four women and nine children, appeared in a court in the southern Sri Lankan city of Galle, where most were granted bail on charges of illegally leaving the country.

As anxious relatives waited outside the colonial-era building, magistrate Umesh Kalansuriya granted bail to 27 of the group, remanded five into custody and discharged the children.

Some of the women, one carrying a baby and clutching their children's hands, wept as police told the magistrate that the group had broken immigration laws, a charge that carries a maximum penalty of two years.

Australia has come under fire over the transfer, with experts warning that repelling migrants after screening them as potential asylum-seekers at sea appeared to be inadequate under international law.

Some of the migrants, most of whom were from Sri Lanka's majority Sinhalese community, told AFP they had been trying to get to New Zealand rather than Australia where they hoped they could find work.

L.A. Nilantha accused Australian customs officials of locking them up and giving them little food and water after they were picked up at sea by the Australian navy.

"They gave me a phone to speak with someone I did not know," said Nilantha, a former shop owner. "I could not understand the language and the line was also very bad. I never had an opportunity to tell them what I wanted."

Another migrant said they were racially abused and denied medication, while some attempted a hunger strike to protest their treatment.

"When I asked for medicine for a rash I had developed after boarding the boat, they said they could not help," the migrant, who declined to give his name, said.

Another unnamed passenger said they were given food past their expiry date adding "they treated us worse than dogs".

Migrant Bhamith Caldera said he would "complain to the UN" over his treatment and denied that he had been screened as a possible asylum seeker.

"They never asked any questions. They just wanted us to go back," he said, declining to answer if he believed he had a case for asylum. "They treated us very badly."

"When women were down with fever, they were just given water," he added. "We were starved. Where is Australia's human rights?"

Some relatives of the group told AFP that the boat was meant to go to Australia rather than New Zealand, with the confusion perhaps a result of the people smugglers who have been known to mislead migrants about their final destination.

The returned migrants were earlier escorted by plain-clothed police officers in the court after spending a night in the notorious Boossa detention centre.

The complex has a reputation for torture and is used as a high-security centre for those detained on terrorism-related offences.

"We will individually register them and the magistrate will decide a course of action," a court official told AFP on condition of anonymity ahead of their court appearance.

Most of the group were Sinhalese, with only four from the minority Tamil community, whose members have faced persecution as a result of a separatist war that ended in 2009, the court was told.

The five remanded in custody were suspected of organising the illegal boat trip, with one a member of the country's elite police commando unit, the court was told.

The five will return to court later this month, while the rest were bailed until May next year.

The group was brought ashore at Galle, 115km south of the capital, and taken to Boossa on Monday.

Sri Lanka's navy spokesman Kosala Warnakulasooriya said Monday that the 41 were taken into custody in "deep waters off the southeastern coast of Sri Lanka", but gave no further details.

An Australian court temporarily halted the transfer of a second boatload of 153 mainly ethnic Tamil asylum-seekers from being handed back to Sri Lanka.

Lawyers acting for some of the 153 took their case to the High Court, arguing a transfer would be illegal and they should not be returned against their will.

Australia's immigration minister is due in Sri Lanka on Wednesday to meet top officials and hand over a patrol boat gifted to Sri Lanka.

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