MORE than 60 Indonesians who arrived by boat in Australian waters have been returned home after failing to meet criteria for refugee status. Their departure came as four Sri Lankan asylum-seekers threatened with forcible removal from Australia voluntarily agreed to return to their homeland, after failing to win protection visas.

Immigration Minister Chris Evans said last night that a group of 62 Indonesian men whose boat was intercepted north of Broome on September 15 had been flown home after processing at the Christmas Island detention centre. The 58 passengers and four crew, who claimed to be from Java, were told they had not raised any issues “which might engage Australia’s protection obligations”, Senator Evans said.

The group had “requested removal” when told they did not meet any criteria for refugee status under the Refugees Convention, he said. “Someone who is seeking better economic opportunities does not meet the criteria for a protection visa,” he said. Senator Evans said 21 asylum-seekers who had arrived by boat since the beginning of the year had returned home voluntarily. Removal arrangements were being finalised for another six who had asked to go home.

Five more Sri Lankans, who arrived on the West Australian coast by boat last November, remain in detention in Perth and are refusing to return to Sri Lanka, pinning their hopes on last-ditch appeals. If their appeals fail, they may be the first boatpeople forced back to their homeland by the Rudd government.

Speaking to The Weekend Australian yesterday from inside Perth Immigration Detention Centre, one of the remaining men, Sarath Tennakoon, said he wanted Australia to accept him as a refugee because he would be killed if forced home. Mr Tennakoon said he had told the Department of Immigration and Citizenship that his life was in danger after he was identified by the defeated separatist Tamil Tigers as a member of Sri Lanka’s air force intelligence unit in 2002. He said he did not come to Australia for economic reasons. “I have money; I have a house and a farm in Sri Lanka,” he said. The men were part of a group of 12 whose boat reached Shark Bay, 800km north of Perth, before being spotted by campers.

Refugee Action Coalition spokesman Ian Rintoul said the four men who agreed to return to Sri Lanka did so only after being pressured to sign documents by Immigration officials. A department spokesman said the claims were “ridiculous” and the department treated people with respect and dignity.

Mr Tennakoon has appealed to Senator Evans and, along with the other four remaining men, wants the Federal Court to allow an appeal against an earlier ruling by the Refugee Review Tribunal.