Tamil refugees face deportation

March 21, 2010

In the Christmas Island detention centre's Alpha Compound — a maximum security-style section holding refugees from Afghanistan and Sri Lanka — Tamil refugees are desperately appealing to the Australian government not to send them back to Sri Lanka.

Three Tamils recently had their refugee claims rejected, but are fighting the decision.
But the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) could harm their bid for protection. The agency said it was "actively reviewing" and may "downgrade" its international protection guidelines for Sri Lanka. Alarmingly, it is doing the same for Afghanistan.

The UNHCR may deem parts of Sri Lanka "safe" for Tamils.

"It's certainly moving in the right direction and we think any review of the guidelines needs to reflect these positive changes", Pacific region UNHCR representative Richard Towle told ABC radio's The World Today on March 12.

Tamils have been escaping Sri Lanka since the government waged a full-scale war against the Tamil struggle for independence, which resulted in the massacre of 30,000 people.

When the bloody war ended in May, more than 300,000 Tamils were locked in government-run concentration camps. Towle cited their steady "resettlement" as a reason to declare Sri Lanka safe.

But Dr Sam Pari from the Australia Tamil Congress told Green Left Weekly Sri Lanka was still a dangerous place and the situation was still very bad for Tamils across the whole country.

"There are still up to 15,000 young Tamil men and women being detained in undisclosed locations, and still allegations of rape and torture", she said. "The government continues to act with impunity and brutality when it comes to arrests and outright persecution of Tamils.

"And there are still over 100,000 people in the camps. The ones who have been released are not allowed to go back to their homes in the north, because their homes are still being occupied by the military.

"There's also very strong evidence of the Sinhalese population colonising these areas — the government is helping this resettlement."

Tamil activists say the military presence in the north has risen. Many army checkpoints remain and new bases have been built.

Pari said the chance that Australia will use the UNHCR's change in guidelines to reject Tamils' protection claims "could be a death sentence for hundreds upon hundreds".
"It's still not safe for Tamils to go back", she said.

Despite this, refugees from Sri Lanka have faced harsh treatment by the Australian government. Since the beginning of 2009, more than 800 asylum seekers from Sri Lanka have ended up in detention on Christmas Island.

But just over a third have been granted refugee status, ABC Online said on March 12. Detainees recently staged protests about the slow processing of their refugee claims. Some have been detained for close to a year.

The immigration department has denied protection to 13 refugees from Sri Lanka, including three Tamils.

David Mann, a refugee lawyer in Melbourne, told ABC Online he represented 17 Tamils on Christmas Island whose claims were rejected.

Refugee rights activists told GLW those who have returned to Sri Lanka have been arrested, harassed, or forced into hiding.

Australia relies on UNHCR advice when processing refugee claims, and Tamil refugees need protection more than ever.

UNHCR also said Afghanistan would be under review, despite the fact that the United States is escalating its military campaign. Violence and civilian deaths are still everyday occurrences.

Afghan refugees total more than half of detainees on Christmas Island. The two most recently intercepted boats, which arrived on March 12, carried asylum seekers from Afghanistan.

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