Today, the Australian government released more than 500 men, most of whom are Sri Lankan, from detention on bridging visas into the community. Most of these men have arrived since August when the Gillard government reintroduced its harsh new policy aimed at deterring people from traveling by boat to seek asylum.
The men were flown from Darwin to Melbourne and Sydney.They will be expected to live on an allowance which is less than the dole, which scores of community groups recently told a Senate Committee was not enough to cover basic needs. Their current visas will expire in June and until then they will not be allowed to work or study. Although Australians who offer voluntary help to asylum seekers will do what they can, these asylum seekers will be at risk of becoming homeless. But at least they will not be imprisoned or tortured in Sri Lanka.
But while these men were being flown across Australian, 45 less fortunate people, including seven Tamils who also arrived recently on boats were being flown from Christmas Island to Darwin and then back to Sri Lanka. They were accompanied on the airforce plane by a team of Federal police who will deliver them to authorities in Sri Lanka.
As a spokesperson for the Refugee Asylum Resource Centre put it:
No names, no evidence of refugee determination, no access to advice. It is reported that there were 7 Tamil men among those returned. Australia engaged in the dirty business of re-foulement.Who will ever know what happens to these men and who will care?
Refoulement is a French word which, in the context of refugees, means returning asylum seekers to their country of origin where they may face human rights abuses. Non- refoulement is an important principle of refugee rights which as a signatory of the United Nations convention on refugees, Australia is supposed to follow.
These men are only the latest of hundreds of Sri Lankans who have been deported. Many have had no chance to make proper applications for asylum. The government initially claimed that whole groups of arrivals were failing to claim refugee status. But this week, the government withdrew from fighting a High Court case in which lawyers acting for asylum seekers would have argued that the Immigration department had failed to provide a proper opportunity to make an application.
Over recent weeks, Sri Lankan refugees have been involuntarily and quietly spirited out of Australia with no legal or other independent advice. Usual procedures were not followed. On November 23 for instance, approximately 15 Sri Lankans including two women were escorted onto a plane parked behind an airport building. Security was provided by Federal police and private Serco guards. Each person was taken from the bus and 'escorted' by two men onto the plane. The whole process took a long time as some were reluctant to go and were physically 'assisted'.
No one knows what has happened to this group but this week, Fairfax's Ben Doherty visited Negombo prison where those deported are sometimes held on their arrival. Megaraj Suresh, a returned Tamil man from Batticaloa, told Doherty he had been harassed and beaten by Sri Lankan "government people" because he campaigned for the Tamil National Alliance party. He has previously been jailed for his political activity but said Australia government officials did not listen to his claim. "I had only one interview to determine my case, they had already decided to send us back," he said."They didn't do proper research, they didn't care about my circumstance, or even look at my documents, they were not honest in their assessment."
A spokesman for the United Nations in Canberra said the agency was "troubled" by the way Australia was processing people's claims. While people not found to be refugees can be returned, the first step must be a fair and accurate process to assess any protection claims that are raised.''The current procedures raise troubling questions as to both fairness and accuracy, which we have raised with the Australian government, '' the spokesperson told Fairfax media.
Other Sri Lankan asylum seekers are on Nauru which was visited yesterday by Opposition Immigration Shadow Minister Scott Morrison. According to the asylum seekers facebook page, he told Sri Lankans to return home "as you have no problems back home and it is wise for you to go back or rather you have not problems to return." Morrison's other suggestion is for Australian to provide more support to the Sri Lankan government to develop their navy so it can more effectively turn back boats.
While the Gillard government and Opposition compete with each other to see who can be toughest on asylum seekers, they continue to ignore the advice of large human rights organisations. In the last two months alone, Amnesty International, Human Rights Watch and the International Crisis Group have raised concerns about continuing extra-judicial killings, torture, enforced disappearances and the lack of judicial independence, persecution of journalists and lack of media freedom..
On November 12, the executive officer of the Brisbane branch of the Catholic Justice and Peace Commission Peter Arndt put out a statement asking the government to pursue the issue of human rights abuses in Sri Lanka. He said that Catholic clergy in Sri Lanka have told him that there has been no improvement in the human rights situation of Tamils since the end of the civil conflict in 2009. Unfortunately the Australian government continues to be prepared to return people to this situation without giving them a fair opportunity to explain their case.