On April 9, the Australian Labor Party government, then led by Kevin Rudd, imposed a three-month suspension of the processing of refugees from Sri Lanka. On July 6, the Labor government of PM Julia Gillard announced, in the context of unveiling its pre-election tougher stance against refugees, that the suspension would not be extended.
It cited a July 5 report by the United Nation High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) and predicted that most Sri Lankan asylum seekers in Australia would have their claims rejected and be sent back. Refugees recently arriving in Australia from Sri Lanka have been overwhelmingly Tamils from the Tamil-majority north and east of the island.
A Sri Lankan army assault retook the region and eliminated the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam in May 2009, ending their 25-year armed struggle for independence from the Singhalese ethnic nationalist Sri Lankan state. An estimated 70,000 civilians were killed by the army’s assault. While the UNHCR report did say the north and east was becoming safer, it also reported continued human rights abuses.
Australian Tamil community activist Saradha Nathan told Green Left Weekly: :“Blind Freddy could see that compared to tens of thousands being killed in 2009 it has improved
“That doesn’t mean it’s safe — there’s still hundreds of people being killed but not tens of thousands like before. So, there is improvement, but in comparative terms.
“It is not safe at all. Reports from friends and family [are that] people are getting abducted, people are getting beaten up, people are getting raped. The situation hasn’t returned to normal. There’s a heavy military presence and … there’s no Tamils in the military.
“On top of that, there are 12,000 suspected combatants who are being detained without any ICRC [Red Cross] access. There are certain parts of the country where independent media and NGOs are not allowed to go.
“[Australian] Department of Foreign Affairs travel advice very clearly says: do not travel to the north and do not travel to the east. If Australians are being advised not to even travel there, why do they think that it’s safe for people to live there?”
The June 30 Sydney Morning Herald reported that Amnesty International had made similar allegations in a letter to the government, which asked for the ban on processing Sri Lankan refugees end.
Refugee rights groups have also campaigned for the ban to be lifted. If the Tamils' asylum claims are processed in accordance with international law, the government's prediction that most will be deported will prove unfounded.
Meanwhile, on July 6, Singhalese nationalists stormed the UN offices in Colombo, after burning an effigy of UN secretary-general Ban Ki-moon. They were protesting against a UN investigation into war crimes in the conflict. Senior UN staff were barricaded inside the office by violent protesters — led by housing minister Wimal Weerawansa.
After the army’s reconquest of the north and east, 300,000 Tamil civilians were detained in concentration camps where human rights abuses were rife. The Australian and Sri Lankan governments emphasise that the detained civilians are being progressively released. Butthe camps remain.
Moreover, ex-detainees, and other displaced Tamils, have been prevented from returning to their homes. Nathan described a pattern of ethnic cleansing.
“There are at least 60,000 civilians still in the camps, including children”, she told GLW. “There are certain parts of the country where people are not allowed to return to their homes. There has been colonisation. Singhalese civilians have moved into Tamil areas.
“The Tamils have been displaced, they have not been allowed to return to these areas but the Singhalese have been provided homes there at the cost of the government. There have been, for a long time in the north, areas marked as ‘high security zones’, where private residences have been taken without any compensation … Now this has spread to other parts of the country.
“Orphaned children [in the camps] have been given to some orphanages … It is basically like the Stolen Generations in Australia … They have been taken to the Singhalese areas and brought up as Singhalese and Buddhist. It’s cultural genocide, basically.”
The Sri Lankan Army has also attacked Tamil religious institutions.
Tamil National Alliance MP for Batticaloa, C. Yogeswaran, told journalists in Batticaloa on June 30 that the government had ordered the demolition of two Hindu temples, while a military camp was being established at a third.
He also alleged that under the army’s rule, Singhalese Buddhist chauvinists had vandalised Hindu temples, TamilNet.com reported on July 1.
The Australian government pointed to the UNHCR’s assessment that just being a Tamil from the north or east of Sri Lanka was no longer sufficient reason to be assessed as a refugee. Nathan said this was “irrelevant” because Australia had never granted refugee status on this basis. She said that there would be no Tamil refugees in Australian detention centres if this had been the policy before.
“There are people from the north and the east of Sri Lanka who have been rejected as genuine refugees by Australia. Some of them have a UNHCR card proving they are a genuine refugee and still they were rejected”, she told GLW.
Among the factors the UNHCR cited as grounds for granting refugee status to asylum seekers from Sri Lanka was a real or alleged connection to the LTTE. However, alleged involvement with the LTTE has been used by Australian authorities to deny Tamil refugees residency on security grounds.
“The Tigers were running the civil administration in the north in parts of the country [during the 2006-2008 cease fire]. Just because someone had a civilian job in the civil administration under the Liberation Tigers, they would be assessed by Australia as a security threat”, Nathan said.
She denied that the LTTE was a terrorist organisation, saying its armed struggle was confined to its homeland. “They have never gone out and done any killings or bombings outside Sri Lanka.”
On July 5, the European Union withdrew preferential trade concessions to Sri Lanka in response to the regime’s failure to improve human rights.
Nathan said that instead of spending billions of dollars on border protection, Australia should be promoting human rights. “The only thing which affects how many people leave by boat is the human rights situation in Sri Lanka.
“Australia is the second-largest trading partner of Sri Lanka. They could use that [as leverage to pressure] for human rights … If they said that there had to be an international monitoring mission to ensure that there are no human rights violations, there would be no need for refugees to come.”
Saradha Nathan addressing July 9 rally for refugee rights in Sydney. Video by Peter Boyle.