Australian Tamil: allow refugees in

November 4, 2009

Justice and Freedom for Ceylon Tamils is a human rights action group based in Melbourne. It was formed in 2007. A spokesperson for the group, Nagamuthu Wickiramasingham, told Green Left Weekly that Tamil refugees had good reason to flee the brutal Sri Lankan regime by boat.

"There is no way of coming to Australia by the 'front door' from Colombo or from other areas of Sri Lanka", Wickiramasingham said. "There are only two openings for Sri Lankans to come to Australia and that is family reunion and skilled migration. Skilled migration is only for qualified people.

"But Tamil people living in the north and east, have very little chance to apply for this because they can't go to [the capital], Colombo. The roads are closed and it is very difficult to access Colombo by any transport.

"If young Tamils do come to Colombo from the north and east without any employment or any reason for coming, they are arrested and interrogated and sometimes put into detention. This is the reason why people leave by boat."

Wickiramasingham said Australia used to have a scheme called the 215 special assistance visa, a special humanitarian policy designed for Sri Lankan Tamils affected by war.

Under the program, about 1000 Sri Lankan Tamils were granted visas to Australia each year. But the Howard government abolished the program in 2000. Since then, there has been no special assistance category for Tamils to flee to Australia to escape persecution.

"Now we don't have the program, people want to save their lives so they leave their country and go to neighbouring countries and from the neighbouring countries they come here", said Wickiramasingham.

The Sri Lankan government has detained 300,000 Tamils in concentration camps since the civil war between the government and the Tamil Tigers ended in May. Government officials said civilians would be released and resettled after 90 days, but this still hasn't happened.

In August, Amnesty International said the camps "are run by the military and the camp residents are prevented from leaving them … Displaced people have even been prevented from talking to aid workers. With no independent monitors able to freely visit the camps, many people are unprotected and at risk from enforced disappearances, abductions, arbitrary arrest and sexual violence."

The Tamil community suspects that the Sri Lankan government wants to migrate people from the Sinhalese ethnic majority from Sri Lanka's south to colonise the Tamil homelands in the north and east.

The imprisonment of 300,000 Tamils prevents their return to their homes or villages.

Wickiramasingham said he had learned from a Tamil parliamentarian in Sri Lanka that the government is already colonising the eastern Tamil province of Trincomalee with Sinhalese migrants.

He said conditions for the Tamil refugees in Indonesia were also atrocious. Even if they are recognised as asylum seekers, like other refugees they will be kept in Indonesia in crowded conditions for years.

"Detention centres in Indonesia are not easy," he said. "People are [kept] in a small room with 20-25 people and no hygienic or health facilities. Things like toilets, bathrooms, and medical facilities are very poor. And not only that, the guards [have been known to] bash the refugees and steal their goods."

The United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees recognises that there are nearly 10,000 asylum seekers in Malaysia, including many Sri Lankan Tamils. Many Tamil refugees are also in Cambodia, but languish in overcrowded conditions.

India is just one hour across the strait from northern Sri Lanka, but Wickiramasingham said the Indian and Sri Lankan navies guard the coastal area. Refugee boats that try to reach India have been shot at and sunk by the Indian and Sri Lankan vessels.

He said this makes it very risky for asylum seekers to go to India, although he also said the Indian state government of Tamil Nadu tends to look after Tamils better than other countries if they make it across safely.

Wickiramasingham said that the people smugglers would only stop if Australia takes more refugees from countries like Indonesia.

"The Australian government should open some legal avenues for refugees to come here", he said. "Some of the European countries have humanitarian programs. But in Sri Lanka and southeast Asia, there is no humanitarian program where they can come to Australia.

"If Tamil refugees arrive in Malaysia or Singapore or Indonesia, and the UN refugee agency recognises them as refugees and they apply for refugee status in Australia, their applications are turned down because Australia has a very low intake of refugees."

He said "the only way is to open a special visa or a special humanitarian program for people who have been effected by the war in the north and east of Sri Lanka.

"The problem is that the government is taking a bigger proportion of skilled migrants than other categories. It could reduce the skilled migration and increase the humanitarian program and refugee intake.

"An intake of 11,500 refugees per year is not enough. The refugee intake must be increased by at least 3000-4000. That's the only way you stop the people smugglers and the boat people.

"The government could open a special humanitarian program and take the refugees from Christmas Island. It's only about 1000 people.

"Tamils are suffering in the war-torn areas of Sri Lanka. They've lost their houses. They don't have anything other than what they are wearing. They are not economic refugees. They fled from the war zone area to save their lives. Pregnant women wouldn't come on a boat unless they are fleeing for their lives."

He said conditions for the 255 Tamil refugees kept in the Indonesia port of Merak for the past two weeks is becoming desperate. "The authorities are restricting water supplies to the refugees", he told GLW. "With 30 children having eye infections, this is inhumane … there isn't enough water to wash out the infection."

When asked about Coalition MP Wilson Tuckey's allegation that there are terrorists on the refugee boats, Wickiramasingham explained that Tamil people have suffered racial discrimination for the past 50 years, which had culminated in a government-sponsored genocide.

"The young people were fighting for their freedom. They were not terrorists. They will die in Sri Lanka. They don't want to come out of Sri Lanka because they are fighting until death for freedom. They don't fear for their lives.

"They are not the people coming on boats to seek refuge in other countries. The people coming on the boats are genuine refugees.

"The main point is that we need a special humanitarian program to be open so that Tamils who are still in Sri Lanka can come legally to Australia. Also, people who are coming by boat are genuine refugees and must receive an amnesty and access to a humanitarian program", he said.

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