AUSTRALIA'S role in stopping Sri Lankan asylum seekers fleeing the country has been criticised by rights groups as a breach of its international legal obligations, potentially sending people back to harm. But the Sri Lankan government is reportedly frustrated that Australia does not do enough to help stem the exodus.

More than 1500 Sri Lankans have reached Australian territory by boat so far this year, an increase of more than 700 per cent on all of last year.

The Herald revealed yesterday that some asylum seekers returned to Sri Lanka have faced arrest, imprisonment without trial and torture at the hands of state authorities.

Australia has, for several years, provided support to Sri Lanka to try to stop people fleeing. But rights groups say Australia should not be involved in preventing Sri Lankans from leaving, arguing it infringes their fundamental right to seek asylum.

The executive director of the Human Rights Law Centre, Phil Lynch, said Australia worked closely with Sri Lanka, offering financial aid, as well as security and intelligence co-operation.

''At best, this undermines the spirit of the Refugee Convention, which gives people the right to flee persecution and seek protection. At worst, it involves Australia, at least indirectly, in exposing people to torture, cruel treatment and other serious human rights violations,'' he said.

A spokesman for the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade said people smuggling was a crime and Australia ''works closely'' with Sri Lankan authorities to curb it. An Australian Federal Police officer is posted to the high commission in Colombo and agencies work with the Sri Lankan coast guard and navy to ''build their capacity in the area of maritime border security''.

However, after a meeting with the Australian high commissioner, Robyn Mudie, on the issue of asylum seekers, Sri Lankan Navy Commander Vice-Admiral Somathilake Dissanayake told Sri Lankan media Australia was not co-operating with its investigations.

''The Sri Lankan Navy intelligence as well as other sister services and police are working overtime to thwart smugglers' plans. But, unfortunately, Australia is not supporting our efforts,'' he was quoted as saying.

He said Australia was refusing to share information about the trawlers that had reached Christmas Island and were now in Australian custody.

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