The ploy is being used despite Albanese’s declaration that Labor won’t budge on turnbacks and as Sri Lankan authorities step up an information campaign reinforcing Australia’s policy and the perils of the sea journey.
De Silva said the Sri Lankan navy had the capacity with its on-water and land deployments to stop most of the boats, but the task of monitoring 1340 kilometres of coastline made it difficult to prevent some getting through.
“Sometimes there have been boats that have slipped through,” he said. “It’s not because we don’t have the resources. It’s the way they operate – the smugglers – it is their primary task to evade the navy mechanisms.”
Conditions in Sri Lanka have deteriorated to the point where it is all but out of fuel, with petrol bowsers running dry after a final shipment via a credit line from India arrived late last week. The scarcity hasn’t just left motorists stranded and forced buses off the road, but has stopped fishermen going out to sea and caused hospitals to cancel major surgeries because staff can’t travel to work.
De Silva said the shortage “does have an impact” on the navy, but it was receiving fuel on a priority basis for national security reasons.
“So far we have been able to carry our duties at an appropriate level to counter the threats emanating from the maritime domain including those illicit migration attempts,” he said.
Sri Lanka is also bracing for worsening food security and its government has taken the extraordinary step of giving more than 1 million public servants Fridays off to start growing their own vegetables.
According to the United Nations, four out of five people are skipping meals and 5.7 million – more than a quarter of the population of 22 million – are in need of life-saving humanitarian assistance.
Foreign Minister Penny Wong said Australia’s contribution would go towards helping 3 million people meet their daily nutritional needs and to support health services and economic recovery, particularly for women and girls at risk.
“Australia has a close and long-standing relationship with Sri Lanka,” Wong said. “Not only do we want to help the people of Sri Lanka in its time of need, there are also deeper consequences for the region if this crisis continues.”
Sri Lanka last month defaulted on its $51 billion foreign debt as its overseas currency reserves nosedived and it has been unable to pay for essential imports.
A delegation from the International Monetary Fund was due in Colombo on Monday for talks about a bailout.
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