Ben Packham in The Australian, Monday 8 August 2022, where the title reads “Secret Sri Lankan Fuel Deal keeps Patrol Boats on Water” .. . with highlighting emphasia being the work of The Editor, Thuppahi
Sri Lankan patrol boats are back on the water deterring would-be people smuggling voyages following a secret deal with Australia to supply the country’s navy with tens of millions of dollars worth of fuel.
The Republic of Sri Lanka Navy Ship “Oshadi”
The South Asian island nation’s ability to conduct maritime patrols had been constrained for months, amid dire fuel shortages caused by the country’s crippling economic crisis.
Sri Lanka’s three main patrol boats and a number of smaller craft are now being refuelled regularly in India at Australia’s expense.
It is understood the deal was arranged during Home Affairs Minister Clare O’Neil’s visit to Colombo in late June.
Due to the secrecy of Operation Sovereign Borders activities, the minister’s office has declined to comment on the agreement, which was put into action about a fortnight ago.
Australian border protection officials are working closely with Sri Lankan authorities to prevent a surge in the number of asylum boat voyages, as desperate people try to escape their country’s economic plight.
An Australian Border Force ship returned 46 Sri Lankans to port in Colombo last Friday after intercepting their vessel on July 21 near Australian territory, in what’s believed to be Australia’s first deportation by sea.
Intercepted Sri Lankan asylum-seekers, regarded as economic migrants who are not due Australia’s protection, are typically returned by air under Australia’s “turn back” policy established by the former Coalition government.
The Australian Border Force recently confirmed it had intercepted the highest number of asylum boats in the month of June – the first full month of the Albanese government – since 2015. Four boats carrying 125 Sri Lankans were intercepted during the month, with their passengers and crew deported to Colombo.
A national security source said the people-smuggling vessels, crewed by unemployed fishermen, did not have sufficient fuel to complete the 3400km journey to Christmas Island.
The Sri Lankan Navy has also stopped at least 17 would-be asylum-seeker voyages in recent months.
The majority were prevented from leaving port or were intercepted close to the country’s coastline.
However, one of the vessels, carrying 55 people including children, made it more than 700km southeast of Sri Lanka before being caught in a cyclone.
The Sri Lankan Navy, operating with emergency fuel supplies, responded to a distress call, rescuing those on board the stricken vessel on July 12 as it drifted hazardously in rough seas.
Every people smuggling vessel from Sri Lanka that has attempted to get to Australia since 2013 has been stopped. But not even the highly publicised interceptions have dissuaded Sri Lankans from seeking a better life in Australia, in the hope that the nation’s new Labor government may have softened the country’s notoriously tough border policies.
Sri Lanka, a nation of 22 million, is facing its worst economic crisis since gaining independence from the British in 1948. It is effectively bankrupt, with no foreign currency to purchase food, fuel, medicine and fertiliser.
It defaulted on its international debt in April, and is facing record high inflation, blackouts, and the closure of schools and public institutions to preserve oil.
Ms O’Neil, who visited Colombo from June 19-21, said recently that Australia would continue to work with Sri Lanka, and provide it with vital support. In addition to the secret fuel deal, Australia donated 4200 GPS trackers to help track Sri Lanka’s fishing trawler fleet – the boat of choice for people smugglers.
“We have an absolute national interest here in helping this country get back on its feet,” she told ABC radio. Ms O’Neil warned the situation in the country was likely to deteriorate before it got better.
“And the most important thing for me to do in my position is to just continue to reiterate to people that Operation Sovereign Borders is Australian government policy,” Ms O’Neil said. “Don’t get on a boat and think that you are going to be able to make a life in Australia.
“You will be turned back. Everyone who has tried to make it to Australia by boat since the election is now back in their country of origin, and that will continue.
“There are other ways that we can help Sri Lanka. But coming on a boat is not a pathway to come to Australia. And I would just urge Sri Lankans to understand that there has been no change in government policy.”
FOREIGN AFFAIRS AND DEFENCE CORRESPONDENT, Ben Packham has spent two decades in journalism, joining The Australian as a political reporter in 2011 after working at the Herald Sun and AAP. He rejoined the Canberra bureau in 2018 after four years in Papua New Guinea.