Sri Lanka navy seizes 142 migrants: spokesman

November 24, 2009 (AFP) – Sri Lanka’s navy on Tuesday seized four fishing trawlers carrying 142 illegal migrants heading for Australia, a spokesman said. The boats were detected off the island’s southern coast while they were moving eastward in the direction of Australia, navy spokesman Athula Senarath said.

“The passengers had paid large sums of money to people smugglers to take them abroad,” Senarath said. “The men and the four boats were handed over to the local police at the port of Galle for further investigations.”

Recent months have seen an increase in the number of Sri Lankans trying to enter Australia and New Zealand. Many claim political asylum when detected by Australian authorities.

Boats take up to three weeks to reach Australia, although some migrants travel by air to Indonesia and then take wooden boats from there to the Australian coast.

Last week, dozens of Sri Lankan asylum seekers left an Australian customs ship in Indonesia, ending a three-week protest over their claims for refugee status. The customs ship had rescued them when their boat capsized.

That stand-off fuelled an intense refugee debate in Austra