Yesterday, in a dramatic backdown, the Australian government agreed to allow 56 Tamils asylum seekers who were due to be deported to Sri Lanka to make applications to be granted asylum as refugees. Today, the Australian government is once again planning to deport another group of Tamils who have been subject to a "screening out" process which denies them the right to proceed with a a full refugee application.
The decision to allow 56 of those awaiting deportation to stay followed an application to the High Court to examine whether the Tamils had been given a proper chance to make refugee applications. Rather than go ahead with the hearing, the government "screened" them back into the refugee process.
On November 30, another group of "screened out" Sri Lankans were deported. On arrival, they were imprisoned outside the capital of Sri Lanka at Colombo in Negombo prison. While some have now been released, they are likely to be subject to continued surveillance and discrimination.
,Hummingbird Stories published an account of what happened to these asylum seekers at the Northern Immigration Centre before they were released.
The asylum seekers say they were taken at 4 am for brief interviews and expected there would be further interviews with case managers. They have since said that they had been constantly interrupted and accused of being liars. Serco guards then refused any further requests for interviews. Some asked for access to documents in which they had alleged persecution in their property but were refused, exposing them to further risk on their return.
On December 3, the Bishop of Mannar, Dr Rayappu Joseph wrote to the Australian government: “it is highly dangerous for the asylum seekers from the North and East of Sri Lanka to be sent back to Sri Lanka in the prevailing political situation in our regions.” According to Dr Joseph, threats, discrimination, restrictions, surveillance and questioning are routinely used leaving those who are deported living in fright and fear. It is hard to see what good reason the Federal Minister for Immigration Chris Bowen could have for disbelieving the Bishop and believing the Sri Lankan government which has got a proven record of suppressing the truth and is accused of committing and covering up war crimes.
Human rights groups have documented cases where those returning to Sri Lanka have been severely tortured. As The Independent reported in September, Human Rights Watch has detailed 13 credible cases where failed Sri Lankan asylum seekers from Europe have been returned and tortured since the end of the civil war in 2009. Freedom from Torture has uncovered a further 24 cases where voluntary returnees have been tortured.
It is this sort of evidence and scrutiny that the Australian government is avoiding by its deportations and decision to avoid court action. As Refugee Action Coalition spokesman Ian Rintoul wrote in a press release:
“This has been a victory for the 56 men who had been denied justice by the federal government. But others in detention still remain potential victims of the dubious practice ... The government has lot of explaining to do. It has been desperate to avoid the court and any public scrutiny of its screening out process. It has virtually admitted that it cannot defend the way in which screening out decisions are being made. Now the government has to act to ensure that safety of those deported as a result of the dubious screening out interviews ... The Australian ambassador should be instructed to attend Negombo jail to ensure that all those jailed by the Rajapaksa regime after being returned from Australia are safe and that they are immediately released and given Australian government protection.”
In a further release, Rintoul said that although deported asylum seekers had been released from Negombo prison, some still had to report to intelligence. “If the Minister was confident of the legality of the screening out process, he would reveal the details of the screening out interviews. He won’t reveal the details because they are arbitrary and indefensible.”
Asylum Seeker Resource Centre spokesperson Pamela Curr told the ABC that she had spoken to a staff member at the detention centre who was appalled at the way in which Sri Lankan men were being interviewed. She said:
"The most serious and basic tenet of the Refugee Convention is non-refoulement, a French word meaning that people cannot and must not be returned to persecution. What this says is that the Australian Government is breaching that most basic tenet of the Refugee Convention....When they sent people back to Sri Lanka, and they're imprisoned and beaten - and I have contacts in Negombo who have reported to me that people are being beaten in that prison - then we are sending them home to be persecuted and we know that."
There is no way that the Australian government could not be well aware of what can happen to forcibly returned asylum seekers. In July this year, a SMH investigation uncovered instances where of both Sinhalese and Tamil asylum seekers sent home from Australia, or stopped by the Australian government from ever reaching the country, have been sent back to systematic state-sanctioned abuse including beatings, imprisonment and torture. As one man told SMH's Ben Doherty:
“They hung me upside down with ropes and put a pole behind my arms, then they hit me with batons. They hung me upside down at 11am and they took me down at 3pm. They hung three of us up, but only two of us came down alive. The other man died.”
Reports by several Australian journalists have provided strong evidence that there are economic migrants amongst the Sri Lankans who have arrived on boats. But they also acknowledge that others are political refugees who will be in danger of being killed, imprisoned or denied work if returned to Sri Lanka. By punishing a whole group, the Australian government, urged on by the Opposition puts innocent lives of persecuted people at risk. There is a long history of suppression of dissent and persecution of those who do not support the government in Sri Lanka. We deny their rights and risk their lives if we discriminate against asylum seekers, just because not everyone is a political refugee.