Australia has a critical role to play in assisting Sri Lanka through the country’s worst economic crisis, according to Treasurer Jim Chalmers.
The comments come as Home Affairs Minister Clare O’Neil is in Sri Lanka for crucial talks with President Gotabaya Rajapaksa, along with the country’s prime minister and foreign minister.
Australia has provided $50 million in financial aid to Sri Lanka as the Asian nation grapples with its worst economic crisis in 70 years, with widespread shortages of food, fuel and medicine.
Multiple asylum seeker boats of people seeking to flee Sri Lanka for Australia have been intercepted in the wake of the crisis.
Dr Chalmers said the situation in Sri Lanka was troubling.
“We certainly got a role to play in helping Sri Lankan friends through what is an extremely difficult period,” Dr Chalmers told reporters in Brisbane on Tuesday.
“The price pressures on Sri Lanka, the inflation challenge, how that is feeding through to social unrest and difficulties in their broader communities and broader society should be a concern to us all.”
Ms O’Neil will discuss how the two countries could co-operate on people smuggling, as well as strengthening engagement on transnational crime.
Of Australia’s $50 million in support, $22 million will be given immediately to the World Food Programme for emergency food assistance.
A further $23 million will be given in assistance throughout the 2022/23 financial year, while $5 million has been given to UN agencies dealing with the crisis.
The treasurer said engaging with Sri Lanka during the economic crisis was important to ensure Australia was meeting its aid contribution.
He said the economic troubles and social unrest were leading to other issues in the country such as the increase in asylum seeker vessels.
“Part of that is the role (the unrest) is playing in pressures on people smuggling and asylum seekers,” Dr Chalmers said.
“We have been upfront about that, that is why Clare O’Neil is there.”
Opposition Leader Peter Dutton said he did not believe the economic circumstances had changed over the past six months in Sri Lanka.
But, rather, Operation Sovereign Borders had been “abandoned” under Labor, he said.
He said the coalition government had been able to deal with the pressure from Sri Lanka in terms of people-smuggling operations.
“But already we’ve had four (boats) that we know of, that have attempted to make their way here and dozens of others that have been stopped coming out of Sri Lanka,” he told Sydney radio 2GB on Tuesday.
“The only thing that’s changed … is that we’ve got a new government.”
(Australian Associated Press)