In a statement issued on Monday, Australian Immigration Minister Scott Morrison said 41 Sri Lankan asylum seekers traveling by boat had been returned to their home country on Sunday after their refugee claims had been assessed at sea and rejected.
The Sri Lankans were intercepted by Australia's border patrol off the Cocos Islands in the Indian Ocean in late June, the statement said, adding that all people aboard the vessel were safe and accounted for.
Morrison told Macquarie Radio that four of the asylum seekers on board were Tamils, but denied that any were in danger of persecution.
Refugee advocates say Tamils still face violence by the Sri Lankan military after a lengthy civil war between government troops and now-defeated separatist Tamil Tiger rebels.
In the past three months, three Tamil asylum seekers on temporary visas in Australia have set themselves on fire at the prospect of being sent back to Sri Lanka. Two died.
Morrison's statements come after he had for days refused to comment on reports that around 200 Sri Lankan refugees traveling in two boats had been intercepted by Australian officials and handed over to Sri Lankan authorities. The minister on Monday again declined to say whether a second boat existed, saying that further comment could endanger Australia's "on-water" operations.
The United Nations refugee agency last week expressed "profound concern" at the reports, criticizing Australia for processing asylum seekers at sea rather than bringing them ashore to assess their claims.
"UNHCR considers that individuals who seek asylum must be properly and individually screened for protection needs," the agency said in a statement.
The statement added that "international law prescribes that no individual can be returned involuntarily to a country in which he or she has a well-found fear of persecution."
Sri Lankan police said on Monday that those returned would be charged with leaving the country illegally. Those found guilty face "rigorous imprisonment," they said.
The return of the refugees to Sri Lanka has fueled concerns about Australia's asylum seeker policies implemented by the country's conservative government under Prime Minister Tony Abbott.
Under the policies, refugee boats are being turned back at sea. Up to now, the vessels have been returned to Indonesia, where refugees from several countries pay people smugglers to get them to Australia aboard boats that are often unseaworthy.
Human rights groups accuse Australia of violating its international obligations, but this is denied by the government.
In 2013, Australia received 16,000 asylum seeker applications, just under 0.5 percent of the 3.6 million applications lodged worldwide, according to UN figures.
The government says there have been no "illegal" arrivals since December 2013 under the turning-back policy.
tj/pfd (Reuters, AP)