Australia criticised over handling of 200 Tamil refugees picked up at sea

Campaigners claim some were handed to the Sri Lankan navy in 'violation of international law'

The Australian government came under renewed fire yesterday over the fate of more than 200 Tamil asylum seekers believed to have been intercepted in the Pacific Ocean. Authorities have refused to comment for "operational reasons" on what happened after two boats were stopped north-west of mainland Australia. But campaigners claim some of the migrants were handed to the Sri Lankan navy in "violation of international law".

Hundreds of would-be migrants have died in recent years trying to reach Australia by boat. Forcing such people back to their own country without investigating their claims is a breach of the Refugee Convention and international law, the Refugee Council of Australia said. On Friday, the UN expressed "profound concern" about Australia's handling of asylum seekers.

Sri Lanka is facing heavy pressure from campaign groups and the West for alleged human rights violations during the final phase of the war against Tamil separatists, which ended in 2009. Rights groups say Tamils seek asylum as they fear being tortured or raped by the military.

Tony Abbott, Australia's Prime Minister, who won office last September partly because of his tough stance on asylum seekers, has declined to comment, saying only that it was no secret that boats had been turned back under the policy.

"I want to make this observation," he said. "Sri Lanka is not everyone's idea of an ideal society, but it is at peace."