CANBERRA, Australia – Sri Lanka's president met with the Australian prime minister on Thursday with fighting people-smuggling high on the agenda.
President Maithripala Sirisena is making the first visit by a Sri Lankan head of state to Australia. His visit to Canberra and Sydney marks the 70th anniversary of diplomatic relations between the countries.
After meeting with Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull, he was also scheduled to speak with Minister for Immigration and Border Protection Peter Dutton.
Sri Lankans, Iranians and Afghans are the largest national groups among more than 2,000 asylum seekers who are kept at Australia's expense on the Pacific island nations of Nauru and Papua New Guinea. But no Sri Lankan asylum seeker has reached Australia by boat since 2013.
"President Sirisena's visit will be an opportunity to advance key areas of bilateral cooperation, including education, defense, science and technology, economic development, medical research and the fight against people smuggling," Turnbull said in a statement before their meeting.
Sri Lankan Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe said during an Australian visit in February that Sri Lankan asylum seekers held on Pacific island camps who could potentially settle in the United States were free to return home without fear of persecution.
Sri Lankans, Iranians and Afghans are the largest national groups among more than 2,000 asylum seekers who are kept at Australia's expense on the Pacific islands nations of Nauru and Papua New Guinea. But no Sri Lankan asylum seeker has reached Australia by boat since 2013.
Australia refuses to resettle any of them and President Donald Trump has agreed to honor an Obama administration deal to resettle up to 1,250 of them. U.S officials have begun the process of assessing applicants for resettlement.
Sri Lanka has been reconciling its population since a bloody 26-year civil war ended in 2009.
Before becoming prime minister in January 2015, Wickremesinghe had accused Australia of turning a blind eye to human rights abuses in Sri Lanka in return for Sri Lankan government support in preventing asylum seekers from reaching Australia.
Sirisena this week used a Cabinet reshuffle to remove his country's foreign minister Mangala Samaraweera, who spearheaded a successful campaign to extricate Sri Lanka from possible international sanctions over war crime allegations from the country's long civil war.