12 Feb 2014

NZ-bound asylum seekers arrested

9:43 pm on 12 February 2014

Seventy-five people including children have been caught trying to illegally leave Sri Lanka by boat and sail to New Zealand.

Sri Lankan police say the group was stopped at 1.15am on Wednesday.

They say the group, which included nine women and six children, had travelled 300km from the east of Sri Lanka to Moragalla, a small coastal town in the southwest.

There, they intended to board a boat for New Zealand, but were caught and arrested by police.

Police said 69 adults paid the equivalent of over $2500 (about 300,000 Sri Lankan rupees) as a fee to the trip organisers.

The media director for the Sri Lankan police, Ajith Rohana, told Radio New Zealand the group broke immigration rules.

Mr Rohan said the children will be free to go, but the adults have been charged with violating immigration laws and the case is now before the courts. He said neither the boat nor the traffickers behind the trip have been found.

It is the large-scale arrest of nationals in months after Australia, long a favourite destination for Sri Lanka's refugees, tightened its borders, AFP reports.

The arrests came five days after Australia announced illegal boats had not reached its shores for 50 days thanks to tighter border patrols.

Asylum seekers, many of whom claim persecution at home over Sri Lanka's ethnic Tamil separatist conflict, have tried to travel to New Zealand by boat in the past. Neighbouring Australia has been a more favoured destination in recent years.

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 smugglers.

Last week, Australia sent back to Sri Lanka 45 nationals who tried to enter the country illegally.