Refugee advocates fear for deported Tamils
Deported Tamil Dayan Anthony's recanted claims of torture at a Sri Lankan press conference, the day after his July 25 deportation, did not assuage the fears of Australian refugee advocates that Tamils face severe danger if returned.
As Tamils continue to flee state repression in Sri Lanka, the country’s Sinhalese regime has urged Australia to return more — in particular those found to have genuine protection needs but given “adverse security checks” by ASIO. The reasons for such rulings are kept secret, but tend to be tied to allegations asylum seekers had been involved in armed Tamil group the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE).
Sri Lanka’s high commissioner and accused war criminal Admiral Thisara Samarasinghe said in May that the country had “rehabilitated” former Tamil freedom fighters and more should return.
Sri Lanka is one of the few countries that have a diplomatic agreement with Australia to allow forced deportations. However, Anthony was the first Tamil to be forcibly deported from Australia since Sri Lanka's bloody massacre of the Tamil people in 2009.
Others have returned voluntarily, often driven by despair at Australia’s difficult refugee process and desperate to see their families. In December 2010, Green Left Weekly spoke to a Tamil man who returned to see his ailing mother after failing to reach Australia and was arrested at the airport, tortured and interrogated for weeks.
He was one of the asylum seekers aboard the Jeya Lestari that was intercepted by Indonesia at then-PM Kevin Rudd’s request. Three others that returned with him also disappeared.
Human Rights Watch documented 13 cases of Tamils from Europe that have been beaten and tortured after returning to Sri Lanka. It says this is likely “just the tip of the iceberg”.
So when Anthony disappeared after arriving in Colombo, refugee advocates feared the worst.
He endured 16 hours of interrogation before he told the press conference, which included Australian journalists, that Sri Lanka was “safe” now that the LTTE are gone. He said he was told by a “people smuggler” to claim that he had been tortured, and he “warned” others against “getting involved” with people smugglers.
Anthony had been fighting for refugee status in Australia for 27 months. He said he had been kidnapped, tortured, suffered back pain from beatings and feared further punishment if returned to Sri Lanka.
A specialist in Melbourne diagnosed Anthony’s back pain and he had visible scars from torture.
His case was under investigation by the UN special rapporteur on torture and the United Nations Committee against Torture appealed to the Australian government not to deport him, even after Anthony had reached Bangkok airport.
Lawyers of a prominent High Court case on deportation also tried to intervene for Anthony. About 150 Tamils will be affected by the outcome of the case, which is before the court trying to win a stronger appeals system for rejected refugees.
But for Anthony, the fax machine at the detention centre in which he was held at Maribyrnong was reported broken and Serco staff delayed his attempts to authorise lawyers to take action on his behalf until it was too late, refugee advocates said.
Immigration officials even refused to tell Anthony's sister what flight he was on to prevent any legal help.
Four Australian officials took him on a Thai Airways flight on July 25. At Colombo airport, they handed him to Sri Lanka’s criminal investigations unit (CID) as his family waited outside.
He told the Australian on July 27 that the CID had taken him to the notorious “fourth floor”, but only for “a cup of tea”. “I don't have a back problem. I don't have psychological problems. I'm OK. I feel OK.”
The “fourth floor” is infamous. Tamil asylum seeker Hari, who was forcibly deported from Britain with 24 others this year, told the Guardian it was “designed” for torture.
A June 5 Guardian article said: “On the walls were sticks and poles, tables and chairs adapted for beatings and whippings. The floor was splattered and stained with blood.
“When he denied the accusations, Hari was beaten, whipped with electric cables, suffocated with a plastic bag containing petrol, hung by his ankles by nylon rope and ‘again burned with cigarettes’.
“‘Due to the unbearable pain, I finally admitted all the allegations and I was made to sign a document and was asked to work for them as an informer,’ he says.”
Hari and many other Tamils were harassed for months after returning. Sri Lankan authorities often wait up to six months before re-arresting individuals. The idea that Anthony can be protected by Australian scrutiny is farcial. Australian officials observed his interrogation for at least nine hours.
Sri Lanka is pushing to undermine Tamils’ protection needs to try to shore up its regime’s rule. The Sri Lankan navy is now intercepting and arresting Tamils on boats trying to escape.
After two boats were stopped from leaving Sri Lanka on July 14, Samarasinghe told ABC radio’s AM the 130 Tamils arrested “will be put to magistrate courts … detained for further investigation”.
He said: “Turning the boats around will deter people … they know they can’t leave Australian soil.”
Immigration minister Chris Bowen said this was just like “any other disruption activities by a home country”.
A string of boats has made it directly from Sri Lanka. Tamils are making the treacherous journey straight across the Indian Ocean toward the Cocos Islands.
That the Australian government is seeking to collude with Sri Lankan authorities and deport more Tamil asylum seekers is a heinous crime.