According to The Australian, the 20 asylum seekers – including at least one baby – were taken to Christmas Island where they received health and security checks before it was determined they had no legitimate claim to asylum in Australia. They were then returned to Sri Lanka by a government charter jet.
The boat reportedly left Sri Lanka in early May, during the federal election campaign. That would have been shortly after the Easter terrorist attacks in which nearly 300 people died in co-ordinated bomb blasts across Sri Lanka.
Prime Minister Scott Morrison reopened the Christmas Island detention centre earlier this year following the passage of legislation – against the government’s will – that made it easier for refugees and asylum seekers held offshore to pursue a medical transfer to Australia.
It is understood no medical transferees have been taken to the Christmas Island facility. But the fact it is now operational and staffed meant it could accommodate the Sri Lankan boat arrivals.
First used in 2008, the facility was mothballed by the government in late 2018 before it was reopened just months later.
The boat in question was intercepted by navy vessels after being spotted during aerial patrols as part of Operation Sovereign Borders.
In August last year, a boat described by Home Affairs Minister Peter Dutton as a “people smuggling vessel” took a group of 17 Vietnamese asylum seekers as far as the Daintree rainforest near Cairns in Queensland.
They were flown to Christmas Island before being returned to Vietnam.