The Sri Lankan civil war ended in 2009 and in the war’s aftermath there has been a plethora of serious human rights abuses perpetrated by the Sri Lankan government. Some of these abuses include abductions, torture and the murder of journalists and civilians, including women and children.
A film showing the horrific conditions and the atrocities currently taking place in the wake of the war was released earlier this year. The documentary, Silenced Voices by Norwegian filmmaker Beate Arnestad, challenges the notion that Sri Lanka is now safe for all Sri Lankans, as Sri Lankan government officials maintain.
The Coalition says the federal government should not grant asylum to any people from Sri Lanka on the grounds that the civil war is over.
On September 2, deputy opposition Leader Julie Bishop said that many Sri Lankan asylum seekers turn out to be economic migrants, not genuine refugees. Furthermore, she said Sri Lankan asylum seekers should be deported before they can obtain access to Australia’s legal system.
Bishop said: “Sri Lanka is already making a significant effort by preventing many boats from leaving their shores, however those who make it through should be the subject to an immediate arrangement to be transferred back to Sri Lanka without coming to Australia. There is an extremely high rejection rate for Sri Lankan asylum seekers with the vast majority proving to be economic migrants. But once they are in Australia they can pursue their claims for asylum through our courts regardless of the merit.”
Independent journalist and author, Antony Loewenstein told Green Left Weekly: “Bishop’s comments are based on ignorance. There is no doubt that some refugees in many countries are economic. She is essentially arguing that the situation in Sri Lanka is stable, that it is a democracy and that people have no reason to leave.
“She is parroting exactly what the Sri Lankan authorities have been saying for years. Bishop’s comment was ignorant. It was also dangerous. And if the forthcoming Liberal government force refugees back to Sri Lanka she will have blood on her hands, and I use that strong statement deliberately."
Greens immigration spokesperson Senator Sarah Hanson-Young told GLW: “To suggest, as Ms Bishop did, that Australia should reject all Sri Lankan refugees before they are even able to make a claim for asylum is reckless and sets a dangerous precedent that flies in the face of our obligations under the Refugee Convention.
“Not only are the majority of Sri Lankan people who seek asylum in Australia found to be genuine refugees but Amnesty International has said that, when returned to Sri Lanka, people who have sought asylum in Australia can face torture and imprisonment.”
Geraldine Moore has worked with a range of refugee resource centres. In response to Bishop’s claims that Sri Lanka is now safe and that refugees from the country are mostly economic, Moore told GLW: “I feel profoundly ashamed of my country when I hear such views [as Bishop’s].
“To characterise the Tamils who are fleeing Sri Lanka as economic migrants who should be forced back, with Australia’s assistance, is the equivalent of sending the European Jews back to Hitler 60 years ago. It is not enough to say [as Julie Bishop did recently], that Tony Abbott is a kind and sympathetic man because he helped a blind marathon runner by leading him on the track.
“The test of our principles as a nation is at stake in how we respond to the plea of the Sri Lankan Tamils to give them asylum from the violent and repressive regime in their country.
“I find it particularly worrying that Julie Bishop impugns the findings of our courts that some of the asylum seekers have a just case for refugee status. It seems that she believes that the asylum seekers are frauds, and not even entitled to put their case before our court system.”
Refugee Action Collective Victoria spokesperson Declan Murphy told GLW the recent changes to enshrine offshore processing in Australia's asylum policy are profoundly backwards and inhumane.
“In effect, they deny refugees who come to Australia by boat the right to seek asylum,” he said. “By sending refugees offshore to rot indefinitely in places like Nauru, the Australian government fails to live up to any basic standard of human rights. We should welcome all refugees with open arms and process them humanely in the community.”
“The Australian government can do much, much more to help asylum seekers,” said Jana Favero, from the Asylum Seeker Resource Centre. “The main points would be for community processing (regardless of mode of arrival), access to a guaranteed safety net and no mandatory detention.”
Murphy said he had grave concerns for Tamils that have been sent back to Sri Lanka: “There have been many reports that the persecution of Tamils in the north of the country has not ceased with the formal end of the civil war.
“One recent example of this was the treatment of a Tamil asylum seeker, Dayan Anthony, who was deported to Sri Lanka earlier this year from Australia. He was detained upon arrival at Colombo airport and there continue to be grave fears for his safety. This is the situation that Australia wants to deport Tamils back to.”
Loewenstein has similar concerns. “Today, in many ways [Sri Lanka is] a police state. You have a great deal of discrimination against journalists. You have disappearances where they are often killed or tortured. You have what is called the ‘white van syndrome’, which is, basically, people get abducted by a white van and they are never to be seen again.”
Loewenstein said the Sri Lankan government carries out a great deal of intimidation of Tamils in the country’s north and the north-east, which is where the vast bulk of the Tamils live and where most of the civil war was fought.
“It is in some ways what China is trying to do in Tibet, which is trying to breed out an alternative way of life, what I mean by that, is it’s a different kind of genocide,” he said.
“They [the government] are trying to bring many Singhalese from the South into areas the Tamils have. So the result is the same as what Israel is doing today in the West Bank and what China is doing with Tibet.”