The Victoria Refugee Action Collective held a forum on March 20 called “Persecuted in Sri Lanka, detained in Australia: the plight of Tamil refugees”.
Former journalist Trevor Grant said the Australian public has been taught to be fearful of refugees. The language used to speak about them — including terms such as “illegal” and “border protection” — is designed to create fear.
Grant, who is active in the Tamil Refugee Council, spoke of the use of torture and rape by Sri Lankan government forces against Tamils.
He also spoke of the trauma inflicted on refugees by the Australian detention system, which has led to an epidemic of suicide attempts and several deaths.
Sivakumar, a Tamil who fled Sri Lanka after his home was burned down in the 1983 anti-Tamil riots, told the meeting that life for Tamils in Sri Lanka has not improved since the end of the war in 2009.
He said the Sri Lankan army controls all aspects of life in Tamil areas. Members of pro-government paramilitary groups walk into family gatherings uninvited and listen to what people say.
Tamils are forbidden to commemorate those who died in the war. Jaffna University students were assaulted and arrested by the army when they lit a candle in a student hostel last November to remember those who died fighting for an independent Tamil homeland.
Sivakumar said that large areas of Tamil land have been seized by the army and given to Sinhalese settlers, including the families of soldiers, while many Tamils who were displaced by the war were unable to return to their homes in these areas. Such Sinhalese colonisation could make Tamils a minority in their traditional homeland.
Former Australian diplomat Bruce Haigh said the demonisation of refugees began under former Liberal prime minister John Howard, and continued under Labor.
He criticised Angus Houston, the Australian government’s newly appointed “special envoy on asylum seekers”, for claiming that people fleeing Sri Lanka were economic migrants.
Haigh called for an inquiry into the immigration department, saying it has acted illegally in its treatment of refugees.