Sri Lanka has dismissed any suggestion Tamils are oppressed within its borders, saying those aboard the Oceanic Viking were drawn to Australia by its `magnetism` rather than the need for asylum.
Sri Lankan Ambassador to the UN Palitha Kohona last night denied the Tamils aboard the vessel had started their journey from his country, describing them as `economic refugees looking for greener pastures`.
Speaking on the ABC`s Lateline program, Mr Kohona said there were no push factors forcing boatpeople to leave Sri Lanka, only pull factors from Australia.
`If they were actually escaping from Sri Lanka, one has to ask . . . why didn`t they escape to India, which is only 22 miles (35km) away, rather than go all the way to Australia,` he said. `It`s the magnetic attraction of Australia that has brought these people to Australia`s shores illegally.`
But in an apparent contradiction of his claim that his country was `perfectly certain` the 78 Tamils on the Oceanic Viking had not originated from Sri Lanka, Mr Kohona said he believed they should be `returned` to Sri Lanka. `Personally I think they should be returned to Sri Lanka -- that is where they belong, and if that happens it is quite likely others will not make this journey again,` Mr Kohona said.
The Sri Lankan government claims the majority of boats taking asylum-seekers to Australia are organised by the separatist Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam.
Mr Kohona said the Sri Lankan government had identified at least two asylum-seekers who were former Tamil Tiger fighters and it was quite possible there were others.
An Australian UN worker, James Elder -- who was expelled from Sri Lanka in September after he spoke out about conditions in refugee camps -- said it was not the role of Unicef to advocate for women and children, but simply to assist them.
`I do not think it is the role of UN officials to make statements that are one-sided, that might help propaganda line of a terrorist organisation,` Mr Kohona said.
The comments came just two days after Foreign Minister Stephen Smith agreed to help Sri Lanka track down Tamil Tiger people-smugglers in return for greater co-operation in reducing asylum-seeker numbers.