Returned Sri Lanka migrants vent fury at Australia

Sri Lankan asylum seekers sent back by Australia cover their faces as they wait to enter the magistrate's court in the southern port district of Galle on July 8, 2014 (AFP Photo/Lakruwan Wanniarachchi)

Galle (Sri Lanka) (AFP) - Sri Lankan migrants aboard a boat that was controversially turned back mid-sea by Australia slammed Canberra on Tuesday, claiming they were abused, given little food and treated "worse than dogs".

The group of 41 migrants, including four women and nine children, appeared in a court in the southern Sri Lankan port city of Galle, where most were granted bail on charges of illegally leaving the country.

As anxious relatives waited outside the colonial-era building, magistrate Umesh Kalansuriya granted bail to 27 of the group, remanded five into custody and discharged the children.

Some of the women -- one carrying a two-month-old baby -- wept and clutched their children's hands as police told the magistrate that the group had broken immigration laws, a charge that carries a maximum penalty of two years.

Australia has come under fire over the transfer, with experts warning that repelling migrants after screening them as potential asylum-seekers at sea appeared to be inadequate under international law.

Some of the group told AFP they had been trying to reach New Zealand where they hoped to find work, while some of their relatives said they were heading to Australia -- the confusion perhaps prompted by people smugglers, who have been known to mislead migrants about their final destination.

L.A. Nilantha accused Australian customs officials of locking them up and giving them little food and water after they were picked up at sea by the Australian navy.

"They gave me a phone to speak with someone I did not know," said Nilantha, a former shop owner. "I could not understand the language and the line was also very bad. I never had an opportunity to tell them what I wanted."

- 'Go back to Sri Lanka' -

Another migrant said they were racially abused and denied medication, while some attempted a hunger strike to protest their treatment.

"They kept on saying 'You fucking Sri Lankan, go back to fucking Sri Lanka'," said the man, who declined to give his name.

He said he was also refused medicine for a rash he had developed during the sea journey in a small fishing trawler.

Another unnamed passenger said they were given food past their expiry date, adding: "They treated us worse than dogs."

Migrant Dhamith Caldera said he would "complain to the UN" over his treatment and denied that he had been screened properly.

"They treated us very badly," he said adding that he wanted to go to New Zealand and was not claiming asylum in Australia.

"When women were down with fever, they were just given water," he said. "We were starved. Where is Australia's human rights?"

Another businessman who was in the boat with his wife and three sons said Australian customs officials taunted the asylum seekers by feeding meat and giving shampoo baths to a pet dog taken along with the skipper of their boat, while refusing to provide a bowl for the two-month-old baby to be bathed in.

"The dog was given two blankets while the children had only one each to protect against the bitter cold," he said asking not to be named. "Two of my sons were not allowed to use the toilet and they soiled their pants.

"There are no human rights at Australia's borders."

- Most on board Sinhalese -

The migrants were earlier escorted by plain-clothed police officers into the court after spending a night in the notorious Boossa detention centre.

The complex has a reputation for torture and is used as a high-security centre for those detained on terrorism-related offences.

Most of the group were Sinhalese, with only four from the minority Tamil community, whose members have faced persecution as a result of a separatist war that ended in 2009, the court was told.

The five remanded in custody were suspected of organising the illegal boat trip. One of them was a member of the country's elite police commando unit, the court heard.

The five will return to court later this month, while the rest were bailed until May next year.

The group was brought ashore at Galle, 115 kilometres (72 miles) south of the capital, and taken to Boossa on Monday.

Sri Lanka's navy spokesman Kosala Warnakulasooriya said Monday that the 41 were taken into custody in "deep waters off the southeastern coast of Sri Lanka," but gave no further details.

An Australian court has temporarily halted the transfer of a second boatload of 153 mainly ethnic Tamil asylum-seekers from being handed back to Sri Lanka.

Australia's immigration minister is due in Sri Lanka on Wednesday to meet top officials and hand over a patrol boat gifted to Sri Lanka.

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