The Australian government admitted Monday that they are holding 153 Sri Lankan refugees at sea as part of "Operation Sovereign Borders," a program instituted last year to stem the flow of illegal immigrants coming into the country.
The announcement has provoked outrage from human rights groups, as the government had refused to comment on the status or whereabouts of the refugees. The asylum seekers reportedly left Pondicherry mid-June and family members were desperate for news of their status.
"The ugly truth is that the government has been keeping dozens of children detained out on the high seas," opposition Greens Party Senator Sarah Hanson-Young said. "(Prime Minister) Tony Abbott and Scott Morrison's nasty secret is out."
The refugee crisis comes five years after the end of Sri Lanka's bloody civil war, which saw widespread oppression of Tamils, a minority ethnic separatist group. Although the Sri Lankan government maintains that those seeking asylum are doing so to increase economic opportunity, human rights groups insist that many Tamils are seeking refuge to prevent a continued brutal crackdown by the military.
Australian Immigration Minister, Scott Morrison has repeatedly defended the program as necessary for border protection and the reduction of human trafficking. "The Australian government will continue to act in accordance with our international obligations, including applicable international conventions and to protect the safety of life at sea. At the same time we will not allow people-smugglers to try and exploit and manipulate Australia's support of these conventions as a tool to undermine Australia's strong border-protection regime that is stopping the boats and the deaths at sea," he said.