Australian Premier Says Sri Lanka Safe Amid Refugee Row

Australian Prime Minister Tony Abbott shown in a photo taken at the White House in Washington DC, 12 June 2014. Abbott praised Sri Lanka's human rights record on Thursday amid reports that Australian authorities handed Tamil asylum seekers over to the Sri Lankan navy. EPA/RON SACHS / POOL

SYDNEY (DPA) — Australian Prime Minister Tony Abbott praised Sri Lanka's human rights record Thursday amid reports that Australian authorities have handed Tamil asylum seekers over to the Sri Lankan navy.

The government has declined to comment this week on reports that an Australian customs vessel intercepted a boatload of 153 Tamils, including 37 children, in the Indian Ocean, based on a phone call to reporters from a man saying he was a passenger.

Fairfax media said they were given a cursory interview before being rejected for admission to Australia as refugees.

Abbott and Immigration Scott Morrison refused to comment on the reports, but said they were determined that no boats would reach Australia.

When pressed on the fate of the asylum seekers by reporters in Canberra, Abbott said boats would be turned around when it was safe to do so.

"Sri Lanka is not everyone's idea of the ideal society but it is at peace," Abbott told reporters. "A horrific civil war has ended. I believe that there has been a lot of progress when it comes to human rights and the rule of law in Sri Lanka."

Labor's shadow immigration spokesman Richard Marles said the public had a right to know what the government was doing with the would-be refugees.

Greens leader Christine Milne said if the Tamils were being sent back to Sri Lanka it was the first case of Australia returning people to countries where they are being persecuted.