Australian government risks lives of Sri Lankan asylum seekers

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.

Australian psychiatrists speak out against Pacific Solution 2

On November 30, New Matilda published a report by Adam Brereton and myself  which included the comments of Professor of Developmental Psychiatry Dr Louise Newman who explained  how detention centres like the ones on Nauru and Manus Island produce feeling of abandonment, despair and psychiatric disorders. On the same day, Dr Michael Dudley is Chairperson of the Suicide Australia Prevention Board since 2001 spoke at a protest rally outside the Federal Minister for Health Tanya Plibersek’s office. As he spoke scores of asylum seekers detained by the Australian government on the Pacific island nation of Nauru were on hunger strike with one, Omid laying critically ill in a small Nauru hospital after refusing food for 50 days. A few hours later he was taken by air ambulance to a hospital in Brisbane.

Protestors outside Federal Minister for Health Tanya Plibersek’s office on November 30, 2012. ( photo by Peter Boyle)

This is a slightly edited version of Dr Dudley’s speech notes. A psychiatrist at Prince of Wales and Sydney Children’s Hospitals, Michael has experience working with youth, indigenous people, and refugees at risk of suicide and self harm. He lectures in psychiatry at the University of New South Wales, is on the Australian Suicide Prevention Advisory Committee (ASPAC) and the Advisory Board of Inspire Foundation’s ‘Reach Out!’ Program.

Dr Dudley told the rally:

“The Pacific Solution is in full swing again, under a different party’s banner of course, but with the same old places of Nauru, and Manus ( Manus Island is part of Papua and New Guinea).

In the wake of the somewhat obscure, cognitively challenging policy of ‘no advantage’, we have organised misery for those in these locations, by suspending them indefinitely and with a gross deficiency of ordinary goods, services and protections. Though the collective focus has shifted offshore, the bane of onshore immigration detention also continues. Many are released into the community, but many others are still indefinitely trapped. Hunger-strikes and self-harm continue, taking people to the very edge of life, because they feel that they have no other voice.

For those released, the myth that they are living in five-star hotels seems to persist, and therefore various parties want to make the conditions as Spartan as possible. From the Opposition, we hear talk of the resumption of temporary protection visas, and the reduction of the recently extended quota. (Compare this with the numbers of refugees in some European industrialised countries). We are currently revisiting the unseemly debate about whether these people should be allowed to work – as though there should ever have been a question about this fundamental human right. We seem still to be unable to appreciate how refugees enrich us – how they have contributed enormously to Australian culture and life: instead we build false security by excluding and disowning the stranger (and thus become strangers to ourselves).

There is little appetite for genuine exploration of real solutions from either main political party. What for example would an onshore model for responding to refugees cost? – say redirecting our misspent monies to properly worked out regional agreements with our neighbours, a properly resourced and supported UNHCR determination process, and air-lifting asylum-seekers to Australia, as Malcolm Fraser once did? Parliament and people know plenty now about the mental health impacts, but who cares?

If we can’t care about the mental health of asylum-seekers, and the nightmare that Australia creates for them, could we be induced to care about the mental health of Australians? Could excluding and creating an underclass of asylum-seekers affect our mental health– with the possibility that their nightmare may become ours? We know a lot about the social factors that underpin mental disorders – such as war, gender-based violence, abuse, poverty, racism, social inequality: and we also know a lot about the social factors that promote mental health – such as the rule of law, basic conditions of life being met, social connectedness, education, a reasonable standard of income, spirituality etc. …studies indicate that strong and connected communities with trust and cooperation across traditional divisions of ethnicity, religion, class and gender are more resilient and more effective at enhancing mental health than more homogeneous environments, while primarily competitive self-interested approaches tend to isolate people.

It seems that we need to wake up to what is really happening here. The overall effects of these asylum seeker measures are to increase isolation, stigma and a personal sense of burden, poverty, disability, and inequality. .

So we must therefore ask ourselves:

Do we want a more equal society, where all people can participate?

Do we want a rich diverse community?

Do we want a significant group of our future citizens (like those who will be joining us from Nauru) to be an underclass who are denied a productive life?

Do we want a higher quality national debate about those seeking asylum?

Our mental health and well being depend on each other. To misquote W.H.Auden, ‘we were mistaken. These faces are ours’. We cannot stand aside from what is happening: we have to stand and be counted. We not only diminish ourselves, but jeopardise our own interests, if we allow these policies toward refugees to continue, and allow the two major parties to continue to head-butt each other when there is clearly another way forward. Let us continue to press this point until the penny drops, and until sanity prevails.

Asylum Seekers protest against indefinite detention on Nauru

Earlier in the year, I prepared a timeline covering the events for the period between 2001 and 2007 during which the Australian coalition government locked-up people seeking asylum on the tiny Pacific nation of Nauru, 4000 kilometres away from Australia. I prepared the timeline because I was upset by the way the Australian media failed to inform the public about the history of detention on Nauru at the time when the Gillard Labor government decided to restart the so-called Pacific Solution by opening detention centres on Nauru and Manus Island in PNG.  After all, people who are eighteen now were still in junior high school when the earlier events occurred. This lack of backgrounding by the media makes it easier for politicians to mislead the public. By presenting the news in a very narrow frame, significant issues are made invisible. 

You can find the timeline on New Matilda here and here. The story is an ugly one of human rights abuse, hunger strikes and forced repatriation that led to deaths. After it was elected in 2007, the Rudd government shut down the detention centre.

On Friday, October 12, New Matilda reporter Adam Brereton reported on an attempted suicide by one Iranian asylum seeker.

Asylum Seeker attempts suicide on Nauru

Two days later, I attended a protest on October 14, I attended a protest outside Sydney’s Town Hall. During the protest, asylum seekers were on the phone from Nauru. I left the protest, expecting that some of this would be reported. Silly me. So when I found no report the following morning, I did this one for New Matilda

Nauru asylum seekers protest delays.

There has however been some good reporting on asylum seekers recently

For example. Kerry Brewster did this excellent report on ABC’s Lateline on the terrible situation of two Tamil detainees.

Tamils speak out against Asio Security Rulings

Breaking through Nauru amnesia

In June, the Australian parliament debated refugee policy proposal put forward in a private member’s bill by Independent member Rob Oakshott which if passed would have meant asylum seekers arriving by boat would be sent to  Malaysia or to the tiny Pacific nation of Nauru, which had played  a key role in the notorious Howard government’s  Pacific Solution.

Yesterday, I posted  a letter signed by 200 academics who opposed these solutions as well as the appalling Coalition policy of forcing boats back out to sea.

I was frustrated by the media and political debate around these issues and the annoyance with  the Greens who refusal to vote for the Oakshott Bill.  The argument was framed in a way which portrayed anyone who would not climb on board with the Oakshott  proposal as not being interested in saving  lives of people risking their lives by attempted to reach Australia by boat.  Much of the media too could barely disguise their annoyance with the Greens for their ‘obstructive’ and ‘rigid’ refusal to vote for the bill.

For me, this eliminated half the story. People drowning at sea is tragic and shocking. But  I can also remember that awful Christmas of 2003 when scores of desperate refugee hunger strikers, some of them were near to death, were protesting over their intolerable endless detention on an island prison.  Could the Labor government, which on its election in 2007 put a stop to the Pacific Solution, really be prepared to reintroduce it?   It was if the Australian community was being asked to commit a collective self-willed act of amnesia.

So I prepared a timeline of events surrounding the Pacific Solution for New Matilda. The first part was published today.

There is a long history to this debate which I can’t do justice to here. In fact, that history certainly goes back to the 20th century White Australia Policy and fears of invasion from the North. But for my purposes here, I began with the introduction of mandatory detention in 1992.


Letter from 200 academics on Refugee policy – Objections and solutions.

In early July, Murdoch University academic Anne Pedersen and others wrote a letter about Australian refugee policy. The letter was circulated and along with 200 others, I was glad to support this initiative as I had become increasingly frustrated with the way the political choices in the refugee debate was being portrayed  by the media.

The letter was an attempt to break through the misleading framing of the refugee debate which meant that the Greens and anyone else not supporting the legislation put forward by the Independent Member Rob Oakshott  were attacked for not being interested in preventing asylum seekers from drowning.

Here is the text of the letter:

We are academics who have serious concerns about the protection of asylum seekers under the proposed legislation presented to Federal Parliament in the week prior to the winter break. The undersigned represent a substantial proportion of Australia’s leading experts in refugee and asylum seeker research. The strength of our concern is indicated by this unusual crossdisciplinary alliance and our wish to express our views.

The two major political parties claim that the most effective solution is to ‘stop the boats’. However, stopping boats of asylum seekers reaching Australia (if that is even possible) does nothing to address the reasons why people flee persecution in their own countries. Neither does it address the needs of asylum seekers to find a durable solution elsewhere. We argue, therefore, that none of the solutions proposed by either major political party is in fact a solution.

Reasons for our opposition are outlined below. We would prefer a different approach to this issue with a focus on protection to provide durable solutions for asylum seekers and refugees in the region. Refugees must have viable alternatives to jumping on boats; we outline these alternatives at the end of this letter.

Four “solutions” to the “problem” of asylum seekers arriving by boat have been suggested by the two major political parties. All of them fail to address the needs of asylum seekers and undermine Australia’s obligation to implement its responsibilities under the UN Refugee Convention in good faith. Furthermore, they are unlikely to be successful. The proposed policies and reasons for our opposition:

Returning boats to Indonesia.

Experience with this policy under the Howard government showed how dangerous it was for both asylum seekers and Australian Navy personnel. Many lives were put at risk; for example, according to a Four Corners report, when SIEV 7 was returned to Indonesian waters in 2001, three men disappeared, presumed drowned, while trying to swim ashore from their stricken boat. There is also the question of incompatibility of the policy with the obligation to rescue those whose lives are imperilled at sea. Furthermore, Indonesia has indicated that it will not accept the towing back of asylum seeker boats to its shores and former Defence Force chief Admiral Chris Barrie has serious reservations about the proposed policy. In short, he does not believe that it will work.

Temporary protection visas.

Refugees granted temporary protection visas under the Howard government were precluded from applying for family reunion. Thus, rather than deterring asylum seekers from taking boat journeys to Australia, evidence indicates that these visas encouraged many women and children to do so. For example, most of 353 asylum seekers who died in 2001 when the vessel SIEV X sank en route to Australia were women and children; many of whom had husbands or fathers on temporary protection visas in Australia. Furthermore, those of us who engage with refugees from that era have ample evidence of the mental harms done to individuals because of temporary protection visas; some persisting to the present day.

The Pacific Solution.

1,231 asylum seekers were detained on Nauru under the Howard government; many for a period of years. 484 were eventually resettled in
Australia and 274 were resettled in other countries, all either as refugees or on other humanitarian grounds. 473 were returned to their countries of origin, mostly to Afghanistan. Evidence suggests that many of those returned to their country of origin fled soon after they arrived as it was still unsafe for them. Some of these asylum 2seekers have since returned to Australia and have now been accepted as refugees. Finally, the evidence is clear that asylum seekers (including many children) are being harmed psychologically, particularly when they spend a long time in offshore facilities.

The Malaysian Solution.

Refugees’ human rights cannot be adequately protected through this scheme. Malaysia is not a party to the Refugee Convention and does not protect the rights of refugees in practice. For example, refugees have no guarantee that they will not be returned to their countries of origin to face further persecution. If Australia sends asylum seekers to Malaysia without first assessing their refugee claims, it may breach the core prohibitions against refoulement in the Refugee Convention and the Convention against Torture. It would also demonstrate a lack of good faith in the implementation of Australia’s obligations under the Refugee Convention and other core human rights treaties.

We propose the following:

  1. Australia should implement its UN Refugee Convention obligations in good faith by processing those asylum seekers who come to Australia and seek protection. We should not shift them to other countries. We cannot encourage other nations to respect the Convention if we blatantly disregard it ourselves. Seeking to move asylum seekers to other countries may achieve short term domestic political gain, but it will undermine Australia’s efforts to develop a viable regional framework, as it reinforces regional perceptions that Australia is interested in exporting its refugee ‘problem’ rather than collaborating in a genuine multilateral process.
  2. Australia should immediately increase its yearly humanitarian intake to 25,000 and resettle refugees from both Indonesia and Malaysia. It should consult with UNHCR to make protection available to asylum seekers who would otherwise seek their own solutions. This should include refugees already en route (that is, in Indonesia and Malaysia) as well as UNHCR priority groups in other countries.
  3. Applications should be promptly assessed by the UNHCR in Indonesia and Malaysia so that refugees have viable alternatives to jumping on boats. The more people who do not need to jump on boats, the less deaths there will be at sea. The UNHCR needs to be given more funding by Australia to achieve this. Alternatively, Australia could process asylum seekers in Indonesia themselves and then transport the refugees safely to Australia.
  4. Australia should bring an end to the mandatory detention policy and – after health and security checks – allow all asylum seekers to live in the community while their refugee claims are processed. This would follow the Labor Government’s recent initiative of offering bridging visas and community detention to asylum seekers not considered a risk to the community. Legislation should be adopted to enshrine this policy and to ensure that detention is used as a last resort and is not of indefinite duration.
  5. There should be judicial oversight in cases where long-term detention is sought. To give but one example, there are over 50 (primarily Tamil) refugees in indefinite detention who have been found to be refugees but have also been assessed to be 3security risks. This is in part because of a lack of judicial oversight; these refugees are not even aware of the allegations made against them. To conclude, we believe that any policy should preserve rather than compromise the human rights of asylum seekers – including their right to seek asylum. We need humanitarian policy responses that share responsibility rather than shift the burden.

The names of all those who signed the letter can be found here.