Sri Lankan asylum seekers held on Pacific island camps who could potentially find new lives in the United States are free to return home without fear of persecution, Sri Lanka's prime minister said today.
Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe made the comments during a visit to Australia in which he discussed with his Australian counterpart Malcolm Turnbull bilateral cooperation on combating people smuggling. No Sri Lankan asylum seeker has reached Australia by boat since 2013.
But Sri Lankans, Iranians and Afghans are the largest national groups among more than 2,000 asylum seekers living on the Pacific islands nations of Nauru and Papua New Guinea.
Australia pays the countries to house them.
Australia refuses to resettle any of them and President Donald Trump has agreed to honor an Obama administration deal to take up to 1,250 of them. Trump added that they will undergo "extreme vetting."
Officials from the US State Department's Resettlement Support Center left Nauru last week after initial interviews with refugee candidates and a team arrived on Papua New Guinea's men-only camp on Manus Island on Tuesday to commence interviews there, refugee advocate Ian Rintoul said.
The US Embassy in Canberra did not immediately respond to a request for comment on the Manus Island interviews.
Wickremesinghe said the Sri Lankan asylum seekers had broken Sri Lankan law by fleeing to Australia for asylum. But they had nothing to fear from returning.
"They are welcome to return to Sri Lanka and we won't prosecute them," Wickremesinghe told reporters.
"Come back. All is forgiven," he said. "It is quite safe in Sri Lanka."
Sri Lanka has been attempting to reconcile its population since a bloody 26-year civil war ended in 2009.
Deakin University expert on Southeast Asia, Damien Kingsbury, said all the Sri Lankan asylum seekers he knew of who were sent back by Australia or prevented by Sri Lankan authorities from leaving had been jailed.
Dissatisfaction with the government is often interpreted as support for ethnic Tamil Tigers rebels.
"If the prime minister is offering a blanket amnesty, then that's something quite new but I don't think the prime minister has the authority to do that," Kingsbury said.
Sri Lankan asylum seekers on Nauru and Manus would be wary of assurances that they were safe to return, with Sri Lanka's north still effectively under military occupation and subject to ongoing reports of human rights abuses.
"Things are not as bad as they were there a few years ago, but they're still difficult," Kingsbury said.