On September 18 the Federal Court will hear an appeal by a Tamil family against their impending deportation from Australia to Sri Lanka.
The family, comprising Nades, Priya and their two Australian-born children, had been living in Biloela, a small town in Queensland, for four years. Their home was raided in the early morning by police and Border Force officers in March last year. They were then taken to a detention centre in Broadmeadows, a Melbourne suburb.
The family were taken to Melbourne airport and put on a chartered plane on the night of August 29. The intention was to deport them to Sri Lanka, but an injunction issued while the plane was in the air blocked this. They were flown to Darwin and then to Christmas Island.
The family fears being sent back to Sri Lanka, because of their traumatic experiences there (Priya saw her fiancé burnt to death by government forces), and the ongoing repression of Tamils by the racist government.
This repression, while affecting all Tamils, particularly targets those who had links to the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE), a movement that fought for an independent Tamil state and was for many years the de facto government of a large part of northern and eastern Sri Lanka.
The LTTE was militarily defeated in 2009. The Sri Lankan government's victory was accompanied by a genocidal massacre of tens of thousands of Tamils. In the years since 2009, thousands of Tamils have fled by boat.
The Australian government has rejected the family’s claims for refugee status. It claims that Sri Lanka is now safe. Many Tamils have already been deported, and others are facing the same prospect.
The following extract from a leaflet published by the Refugee Action Collective (Victoria) explains why Sri Lanka is not safe for Tamils.
Sri Lanka has a long history of discrimination against Tamils. In 1948 Tamil plantation workers were deprived of citizenship. In 1956 Sinhalese was made the sole official language, denying the Tamil language equal status.
Peaceful protests against discrimination were met with violent repression, by the army, police and racist mobs. In response, some Tamil youth took up arms and formed the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam [LTTE], which fought for an independent Tamil homeland in the north and east of the island. After nearly 30 years of war, the LTTE were defeated in 2009.
Following the victory of the Sri Lankan government, Tamil areas are under military occupation. Land belonging to Tamils has been seized for new military bases, Sinhalese settlements and commercial enterprises.
Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch [HRW] have documented the widespread use of arbitrary detention, murder, torture, rape and disappearances, carried out by the army and its collaborators.
The 2014 HRW World Report stated that in Sri Lanka, “Torture, rape, and ill-treatment in custody by the security forces remain widespread”. While Tamils are the main victims of such practices, members of other ethnic groups who were critical of the government have also suffered.
New Sri Lankan government
In 2015 a new president was elected in Sri Lanka. Maithripala Sirisena replaced Mahinda Rajapaksa.
Some Australian commentators have claimed that with the new government, asylum seekers have no reason to fear returning home. But this is not true.
Sirisena was a minister in the Rajapaksa government for nearly ten years. He was acting defence minister during the closing days of the war, when tens of thousands of Tamils were massacred.
As president, Sirisena has kept a large military presence in Tamil areas. Since the army is the perpetrator of horrendous crimes against the Tamil people, its very presence is a cause of fear. There have been reports of continuing sexual harassment of Tamil women by the army, as well as reports of Tamil farmers being driven from their land at gunpoint.
Abductions, torture and rape by the army and police have continued to occur under the current regime. This has been documented in reports by human rights organisations.
In July 2017 Ben Emmerson, the United Nations Special Rapporteur on Human Rights and counter-terrorism, said: "All the evidence points to the conclusion that the use of torture has been, and remains today, endemic and routine, for those arrested on national security grounds."
There are still people detained without trial under the Prevention of Terrorism Act. There are restrictions on free speech. It is illegal to advocate an independent Tamil state, even by non-violent means.
What happens to returned asylum seekers?
A UN human rights working group that visited Sri Lanka in December 2017 received testimony that, in some cases, the returned asylum seekers were "beaten and kept under surveillance once released, and charged with offences relating to illegal departure from Sri Lanka".
The Australian government does not keep track of what has happened to asylum seekers returned to Sri Lanka from Australia, but it is known that some have been intimidated by regular visits to their homes by the army and police.
People who have fled from violence and terror should not be sent home against their will. They should be able to decide for themselves if and when they feel it is safe to return. They should be given permanent residency and welfare and work rights, so they can build a new life in Australia.
[Chris Slee is a refugee rights activist in Melbourne and author of The Tamil Freedom Struggle in Sri Lanka.]