COLOMBO - Sri Lankan police said Wednesday they had arrested 53 people, including five Pakistani nationals, who were trying to leave the island illegally in a boat believed to be heading for Australia. The fishing trawler was stopped by the navy off the island's southeastern coast late Tuesday and the men were handed over to the police who questioned the passengers and arrested another 26 people on shore, spokesman Ajith said. He said 21 Afghans were arrested on shore and were suspected of using Sri Lanka as a transit point. "We have seen an increase in the attempts by people smugglers to take boatloads of people to Australia in recent months," he said.
Late last month, police busted another people-smuggling ring and arrested 113 men who were preparing to board a trawler heading for Australia.
A senior naval official told AFP that authorities expected an increase in illegal boat operations from Sri Lanka to Australia after an Australian court shot down a local scheme to send illegal immigrants to Malaysia.
Canberra clinched a deal last year to send 800 boat people to Malaysia in exchange for 4,000 of that country's registered refugees in a bid to deter people-smuggling operations.
But it was struck down by the High Court, which ruled the Australian government did not have the power to send asylum-seekers to third countries where it could not guarantee their rights.
Malaysia is not a signatory to UN refugee conventions.