, COLOMBO, Jul 30 – Sri Lanka’s navy Sunday rescued people from a stricken boat trying to flee to Australia and stopped a second vessel, raising the number of would-be illegal immigrants caught this month to more than 530.
It was the highest number detained in a one-month period in recent years, a navy official said, as Australia faces a steady influx of asylum seekers arriving by boat.
The navy went to the rescue of 28 people after a passing ship reported that their trawler was drifting some 480 kilometres (300 miles) southeast of the island.
“The vessel was on its way to Australia when it had developed engine trouble and had been drifting for days,” said a navy official, who declined to be named. “After the rescue, they were arrested for breaking immigration laws.”
He said another fishing trawler carrying illegal immigrants was stopped by the navy off the island’s eastern coast and was being escorted ashore.
The exact number of people aboard was not immediately clear, but a few dozen could be seen inside, the official said.
The incident came a day after a similar fishing trawler carrying 31 people was intercepted off the island’s western coast and another 20 were arrested on shore preparing to board the vessel, the official said.
“We had the highest number of arrests this month,” said the official.
The official said the figures were in contrast to 200 people arrested between May and June.
Most of the would-be illegal immigrants had paid up to 300,000 rupees ($2,300) as an advance for the perilous journey and were to hand over an additional 400,000 ($3,000) on reaching Australia, according to the official.
The boat people have been handed over to the police’s criminal investigations department, the official said, adding that most of them wanted to claim political asylum in Australia.
Many asylum-seekers heading to Australia use Indonesia as a transit hub, boarding leaky wooden vessels there after fleeing their home countries.
While most boats originate in Indonesia, there has been a recent spike in the number of attempted crossings from Sri Lanka.