Tamil refugees fight deportation

Issue 
Photo: Matt Ward.

A high court challenge to Australia's offshore processing, on behalf of two Tamil refugees whose asylum claims were refused, has questioned the legality of the refugee processing policy.

The case, heard in Canberra's High Court over August 24-26, occurred amid rising numbers of refugee claims being refused.

Australia imprisons refugees in offshore detention and denies them full right of appeal in Australian courts. Access to legal advice and fair processing is greatly restricted.

The lawyers acting on behalf of the Tamils labelled this practice unlawful and unconstitutional.

The August 26 Australian reported that solicitor David Manne from the Refugee and Immigration Legal Centre said: "One of the key points to this challenge is that if the detention of our clients is justified under Australian law then decisions on their refugee status, this life-or-death matter, must also have a legal effect.

“How can the detention be lawful if decisions on cases which form the purpose of the detention are not?"

Manne told Lateline on August 24: “The government can't make decisions on life or death matters completely without constraint of due legal process or the courts.”

The challenge aimed to win refugees the right to appeal their claims in the lower courts, and end the arbitrary powers of immigration officials.

It stands in direct opposition to the Labor federal government's recent policies. Government attacks on refugees continued to escalate throughout the election campaign.

Labor’s decision in April to suspend processing refugee claims from Sri Lanka and Afghanistan was followed by a push to outsource offshore detention to countries in the region.

Refugee advocates have said the government is planning to deport hundreds back to danger. Many Tamils are now in Sydney's Villawood detention centre waiting to hear if they will be deported.

Since the processing of refugees from Sri Lanka resumed, the rate of initial rejection has shot up. But Ian Rintoul from Sydney's Refugee Action Coalition said the rejections were later being overturned 80-90% of the time.

The freeze on refugee claims from Sri Lanka was lifted on July 6. But Prime Minister Julia Gillard said in an immigration department media release that the government would begin rejecting more claims.

She said it was likely that asylum seekers from Sri Lanka, mostly Tamils, would be “quickly sent home by plane”.

Gillard claimed the United Nations had ruled Sri Lanka a safer place for Tamils. But that assertion was recently refuted by Amnesty International, when it revealed that three Tamils forcibly deported by Australia in 2009 had been repeatedly arrested and tortured by the Sri Lankan government.

On September 3, Amnesty said: “Sumith Mendis and Indika Mendis were detained in 2009 at the Christmas Island detention centre after the boat they were on was stopped by Australian authorities and found to be carrying Sri Lankan asylum seekers.

“They were deported to Sri Lanka and promptly arrested and handed over to the Central Investigative Department (CID). Sumith Mendis was released, but Indika Mendis was tortured in CID custody, sustaining severe ear injuries before being transferred to the notorious Negombo prison where he was held for eight months.”

At a protest action in support of the court hearing on August 24, New South Wales Greens MP Sylvia Hale said: “If these people are deported, and I understand there are about 25 who are in imminent danger of deportation, they will be sent back to countries where their lives really will be in danger, and the whole point of being a refugee is that you seek asylum because of that threat to your life and your liberty.”