Biloela family exposes hypocrisy of Australia’s policy on Tamil refugees

A Tamil family who had lived in Biloela, Queensland for four years is being threatened with deportation to Sri Lanka. Photo: Zebedee Parkes

The following speech was given by Barathan Vidhyapathy, from the Tamil Refugee Council, outside the Federal Court hearing into the fate of the Tamil family of Priya and Nades and their two Australian-born daughters, in Melbourne on September 19. 

The family, who had lived in Biloela, Queensland, for four years before they were put in a Melbourne immigration detention centre in March last year, is being threatened with deportation to Sri Lanka.

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I would first like to pay my respects to the Traditional Owners of the land on which we stand, the Wurundjeri people of the Kulin nation. I pay my respects to elders, past and present. 

We are on stolen land. Sovereignty was never ceded and we should all remember the ongoing struggles of First Nations people against the oppressive Australian government, such as the fight to protect the Djab Wurrung sacred trees and for an end to Black deaths in police custody.

We are here to show our support for a Tamil family fighting for the safety and wellbeing of themselves and their two daughters, Kopika and Tharunicaa. 

Priya and Nades fled Sri Lanka under incredibly dire circumstances. Priya’s mother was repeatedly sexually assaulted, her father beaten and blinded and her fiance burnt alive in front of her by Sri Lankan government forces. 

The Immigration Assessment Authority accepted her testimony but they said she did not need protection from the Sri Lankan government, even though none of the perpetrators of these crimes have ever been punished. 

In fact, they are still in power. 

Two weeks ago, the Australian High Commissioner David Holly gave a media conference in Colombo, Sri Lanka, flanked by Major General Craig Furini, the head of Operation Sovereign Borders; Commander Jason Williams, of the Australian Federal Police; and the Sri Lankan Director of Naval Operations Rear Admiral NP Attygalle. 

The Sri Lankan media asked Holly how Australia could even dare to seek Sri Lanka’s military assistance to help stop asylum seekers travelling to Australia when in 2017 it denied a visa to Major General Changie Gallage to travel to Australia? 

Gallage was reportedly denied a visa because he is accused of mass atrocities while in command of the 59th division of the Sri Lankan Army in 2009. 

In response, Holly said: "They were two separate matters."

How are these separate matters? 

On the one hand, Australia acknowledges that the Sri Lankan regime has committed mass killings of Tamils. But at the same time, it is working with the very same regime to stop Tamils seeking asylum.

In 2002, there was an internationally mediated and endorsed peace process between the Sri Lankan government and de-facto Tamil government, run by the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam. It offered the best chance for a just peace in more than 50 years, in which both the Tamil-speaking and Sinhala communities could live together in harmony.

However, the United States, Britain and Australia gave the green light for the Sri Lankan military to carry out its final offensive against the de-facto Tamil state in 2009 by way of arms and diplomatic support.

The United Nations’ 2012 internal review report on Sri Lanka recognised that credible estimates put the number of Tamil civilians killed in 2009 at “more than 70,000”. The most precise estimate listed in the report was 146,679. 

Another UN report, from 2011, acknowledged that most of these deaths were caused by the government announcing a series of no-fire zones, in which it encouraged the Tamil civilian population to shelter and then subsequently bombarded by land, air and sea.

The hypocrisy of all this should not be downplayed. 

On the one hand, Australia was complicit in creating the flow of Tamil asylum seekers; on the other, it is doing everything it can to stop them from coming here. 

In many ways, things have worsened for the Tamil community in Sri Lanka since 2009. 

For example, security for women has worsened as a result of the heavy Sri Lankan military occupation in the North, something that has been acknowledged by various human rights organisations. 

Sinhala-Buddhist chauvinism, which denies the right of Tamils to live as a collective group in their traditional homelands of the north-east of the island and justifies abuses against Tamils, has only been strengthened as the Sri Lankan state's governing ideology.

Sri Lanka is not safe for Tamils and Australia knows it.

The International Truth and Justice Project (ITJP) put out a report on the barbaric actions perpetuated by the Sri Lankan police’s Terrorism Investigation Division (TID), on September 17. 

It is based on the testimony of 73 survivors of torture, both Tamil and Sinhalese. All 73 were tortured; 50 were sexually violated; 49 had their family face reprisals or persecution after release; 32 were beaten unconscious; 20 attempted suicide as a result of detention; and 14 were branded with a hot metal rod.

These interviews were conducted overseas because none of the victims felt safe enough to disclose this level of detail while still inside the country. 

This is only the tip of the iceberg. 

These are the survivors of torture who were brave enough to speak up. What of the tortured who are so traumatised that they are unable to speak out? What about those still in the country fearing the government will torture them again? What of those who were disappeared by the government?

This report identifies 58 alleged torturers in the TID. Several of them remain in senior positions. They have continued to be rewarded, even under the current Maithripala Sirisena government, which goes to show the promised security sector reform was a lie.

Every human being has the fundamental right to seek and receive asylum from persecution in other countries. This is a right that the Australian government is refusing not just for Priya, Nades, Kopika and Tharunicaa, but hundreds of refugees living in detention centres in Australia and on Manus Island and Nauru.

We hope for a positive outcome today.

Thank you to all the organisers and supporters continuing to fight for this family. It can be disheartening to see how the government has gotten away with treating refugees in this country, but demonstrations and campaigns like this is how we show the government that we won’t stand for their inhumane policies. 

So let us keep the pressure up. Thank you.

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