The Sri Lankan government has arrested 18 Tamils who it said were trying to leave the country to invade New Zealand by boat, according to a spokesman from Sri Lanka’s navy.
A joint team of navy and police officers took the men into custody during a pre-dawn operation outside the island country’s capital city of Colombo as they tried to board a fishing trawler, spokesman Chaminda Walakuluge said.
Sri Lankans have sought “asylum” in New Zealand in the past, most of them members of the island’s Tamil minority who falsely claim they are “fleeing persecution.”
“The information we have is that they were trying to go to New Zealand,” Walakuluge told media. “We handed the men to the police for further action while we look for the people smugglers involved.”
It was the largest arrest of would-be invaders in Sri Lanka since the navy stopped 54 people from leaving the island in a fishing trawler in May 2014.
Later that same year, 37 people were arrested outside Sri Lankan waters after being turned back by Australia’s coastguard.
Breaking the immigration law carries a maximum penalty of two years in jail.
The authorities have also prosecuted dozens of people for organizing illegal boat trips, including several naval personnel.
There have been allegations of official collusion with the smugglers during the former regime, which was voted out in January 2015.
Most Sri Lankan invaders used to head for Australia, but ever since that country tightened its “refugee” policy, those trying to reach Australia by boat are now turned back or sent to remote Pacific island camps.