COLOMBO (AFP) - Sri Lanka's navy on Wednesday seized a fishing trawler carrying at least 97 illegal migrants on their way to Australia, a naval official said.
The boatload of migrants belonging to Sri Lanka's Tamil minority was intercepted at Oluvil off the country's eastern coast, navy spokesman Commander Kosala Warnakulasuriya told AFP.
"In the arrested lot were 39 men, 18 women and also 40 children," Commander Warnakulasuriya said.
They will be handed over to Sri Lankan police later in the day, he added.
Last year some 16,770 asylum seekers arrived on Australia's shores, with Sri Lankans the biggest group, numbering about 6,360.
Over the past few years, hundreds have died making the treacherous journey.
Canberra is struggling to contain the numbers and has set up processing centres on Nauru and Papua New Guinea.
Sri Lankans pay up to US$3,000 (S$3,724) for a place on trawlers that take around two weeks to make the treacherous crossing to Australia. Some migrants travel by air to Indonesia and then take rickety wooden vessels to the Australian coast.
On Monday, two people including a young child died when an asylum-seeker boat capsized off Australia. More than 90 were plucked to safety and taken ashore.
Illegal immigration is a thorny political issue in Australia, and Canberra currently funds a media campaign in Sri Lanka to educate would-be boatpeople against undertaking the journey.
Australia also announced US$36 million in aid last December to boost educational opportunities in Sri Lanka, in the hope it will stem the flow of illegal migrants from the island.