In February this year, a boat carrying 83 Tamil asylum seekers from Sri Lanka was intercepted by the Australian Navy. After being detained on Christmas Island for a month, the Tamils were transferred to Nauru.
After their asylum claims were processed, 72 were granted refugee status. However, at the same time as the Sri Lankan armed forces continued their aerial bombardment of Tamil-populated areas in Sri Lanka, immigration minister Kevin Andrews announced that the refugees would not be allowed to resettle in Australia and that a third country was being sought to accept them.
N.R. Wickiramasingham, the chairperson of the Melbourne-based Justice and Freedom for Celyon Tamils, told Green Left Weekly that the refugees "came all the way from Sri Lanka by sea in a wooden boat. They came to save their lives. They didn't know they were coming here — they only knew they were in Australian waters when they were picked up."
The refugees are now "very worried", according to Wickiramasingham — who speaks to them by phone every day — as they fear they will be left to languish in detention despite their applications for refugee status being accepted. "The minister said he won't allow them to come in, but according to the UN refugee convention, Australia is responsible for accommodating them here."
Asking why the 72 can't be included in the government's annual intake of 13,000 refugees, Wickiramasingham rejected claims by Andrews that his government's refusal to allow the refugees to live in Australia would "send a signal" to people smugglers. "Even if they are sent to a third country, they are still being resettled", he said, adding that punishing refugees for seeking asylum violates the UN refugee convention.
Andrews argues that refugees should seek asylum though the appropriate legal channels rather than attempting to reach Australian shores by boat. "How can the minister say the refugees must have the proper papers?", Wickiramasingham asked. Their lives are at stake so they must try to reach safety "by any means", he said, and do not have the luxury of obtaining the appropriate paperwork.
For more than three decades the Sri Lankan military has waged a brutal war against the country's Tamil population, and Wickiramasingham explained that there are large numbers of displaced Tamils trying to survive in camps in the island's north-east. "Already this year, thousands of those have sent applications to come to Australia, but nothing has happened."
Wickiramasingham said that the Australian government has no program for resettling refugees from Sri Lanka. They only have access via the skilled migration and family reunion programs. "If there was a special humanitarian program, then they wouldn't have to come by boat", he pointed out.
"Before there was a scheme — the 'special assistance category 215', which took 250 families from Sri Lanka each year. But in 2001 Howard chopped it."
Wickiramasingham described how some of the young Tamil refugees had seen five of their friends shot dead before their eyes prior to fleeing their homeland. He has no doubt as to what the Sri Lankan armed forces would do to the refugees if they returned: "they will kill them."
Wickiramasingham told GLW that the detainees are extremely unhappy. "The situation in Sri Lanka is getting worse day by day. Some of the refugees left their wife and kids behind, some of their family members are being arrested. And now they are worried they will stay on Nauru. They feel helpless."
Conditions facing the refugees on Nauru have worsened. "Before they were allowed to go out during the day, but now they can't go anywhere. They eat and sleep in detention. They have no entertainment except television. They have asked for internet facilities but mostly the internet doesn't work." Wickiramasingham says that if the refugees' precarious situation continues, their mental health will be badly affected.
According to Wickiramasingham, there are some 50,000 Sri Lankan Tamils already living in Australia, including professionals and others who are contributing positively to Australian society. "They would be happy to welcome and look after the refugees", who themselves "would be very good citizens and would contribute talent for Australia's future".
Wickiramasingham said he has a simple request for whichever government comes to power after the coming federal election: "Reopen the 215 special humanitarian program immediately." He called on the government and opposition parties to state before the election what they pledge to do for these refugees.
Wickiramasingham also appealed to refugee rights advocates to put pressure on the UNHCR to ensure the refugees are settled in Australia.