Groundviews

Australia’s treatment of asylum seekers: Reflections from visit to Sri Lanka

Photo by DushiYanthini Kanagasabapathipillai

I first visited Sri Lanka in 2003. I took leave from the Australian Department of Immigration and Citizenship for a short humanitarian stint with a Sri Lankan NGO during a Norwegian Peace Initiative-ceasefire. The civil war spanning over 25 years ended with the defeat of the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) in 2009.

During my brief experience in 2003 in Jaffna, I did not fully understand the history of the conflict, the implications and impact on civilians but I do recall Jaffna in the North was heavily militarised.

After leaving the Department in 2007, I registered as a migration agent and from 2010, I worked with asylum seekers in detention centres and in the community.  As I become more informed about how differently asylum seekers and refugees from Sri Lanka are treated, I am more committed to helping them.

The Australian government has used a short-cut screening process known as ‘enhanced screening’ that expedites the removal of asylum seekers with no genuine and fair procedures to claim and assess asylum, and no monitoring to ensure the safety of people who return. The cooperative relationship Australia has with Sri Lanka is jokingly referred to as AusLanka. Sri Lanka is a refugee-producing country and ironically, also a refugee-hosting country now deporting Pakistani Christians.

I have never worked harder than I am now under the current policies of the Australian government elected on 7 September 2013 and it is all bad news.

The Immigration Department I once enjoyed working in has shifted from nation building to border protection and control, reflected by its new name of The Department of Immigration and Border Protection.  There has been no processing of claims for people who arrived by boat on or after 13 August 2012, and people live with uncertainty.  The policies are driving people mad with someone describing it as ‘psychological torture’. Leo Seemanpillai, a Tamil Catholic from Sri Lanka, and Omid Avav Ali, a Kurd Iranian committed suicide in the past 18 months.

We are currently supporting a Tamil man in his 40’s who has had a mental breakdown due to a life in limbo and the fear of being returned to Sri Lanka. Those of us working with him are devastated and traumatised.

Policies in Australia continue to be punitive, brutal and unwelcoming against asylum seekers arriving by boat. The government perpetuates fear in its language. Asylum seekers and refugees arriving by boat are officially referred to as Illegal Maritime Arrivals (IMA’s) and identified by their Boat ID numbers. If you are refugee or asylum seeker in Turkey, you are called a guest. If you are rescued by boat in Lampedusa, the Italian authorities call you a migrant.

There are thousands of asylum seekers who have not been invited to make an application. Yes, the Australian Immigration Minister has the sole discretion to ‘invite’ or ‘not-invite’ boat arrivals to make an application. The migration amendments passed in December 2014 affecting people seeking protection who arrive by boat on or after 13 August 2012 and before 1 January 2014 are as follows:

I visited Sri Lanka again in March this year. In nine days, I travelled approximately 1,500 km to visit a number of key areas in the Central, Eastern, and Northern Provinces. I will not identify the areas so as to protect my sources. All is not well. There were expectations the election of the Sirisena government in January this year on the votes of Tamils, minorities and Sinhalese might bring a glimmer of hope for justice, peace and reconciliation. Can the President deliver on reforms? While culture and nepotism is difficult to change, a great achievement of the Sri Lankan people was to change government. A prominent human rights activist stated there was an unprecedented high level of voting, the travel ban to the North on foreigners lifted, changes in the media sphere, removal of military governors, new land development and the release with conditions of Ms. Jeyakumari, a Tamil activist campaigning against political disappearances, and a few other political prisoners.

Human rights activists have written about the UN Human Rights investigation mandate and challenges ahead.  The deferment of the UN’s report to investigate allegations of serious human rights violations and crimes during the last years of the civil war, for a domestic investigation has been boycotted by civil society. Activists I spoke with say that when you demand accountability, establishments feel threatened.  ‘We should be open to international scrutiny, only then will our faith in justice and government be restored’.

I am inspired by the bravery of civil society and various religious leaders and activists to call for justice, equality and accountability that may lead to peace and reconciliation. Key issues relayed to me are missing persons, the ongoing militarisation of the North and East, land rights, violence, reintegration of former cadres, and calls to repeal the Prevention of Terrorism Act (PTA).

Two Tamil widows from the North told me they will not accept a death certificate of their husbands until they see his body. No amount of pressure, persuasion or compensation will change their minds. Enforced disappearances are very emotive and cause high levels of anxiety and stress for families. They continue to be harassed by the authorities. Livelihood options for widows are limited. Religious leaders told me they have observed an increase in sex work in Colombo and the North.

A former Tamil detainee who spent two years in a ‘rehabilitation’ camp told me how he was tortured and still suffers from internal injuries. In the camp, he was given tablets for his pain and these tablets caused him further intense pain while urinating blood. When released, he went to see an independent doctor who advised him to stop taking these tablets. This man also witnessed detainees being injected with ‘something’ that he believes is making them ‘mad’. He further said ‘missing’ people (most likely Tamil political prisoners) are being held in camps in the jungle, something the government has denied. He told me the authorities will visit him tonight because he spoke with me but ‘they can’t do anything more to me they haven’t already done’. He has suffered a lot and I am inspired by his courage and resilience. I suppose one should be careful not to instil so much fear that they are fearful no more.

When our wings are clipped, we live in fear and anxiety. It was a cloak and dagger affair in a particular town when I needed to buy a cotton top. As a ‘white’ woman, I would have attracted unwarranted attention if I walked around town, so we drove up to a shop, I walked quickly in with my friend, chose a top in 5 minutes, paid for it and dashed straight back out of the shop into the van. My driver was nervous and so was the person with me.

As I travelled in a white van to the North and East, it was chilling to see many military, police and navy camps. We were stopped at military and police checkpoints on at least five occasions, to check the vehicle’s registration (which is routine and a traffic matter) and my name was recorded on one occasion. I noticed many houses standing in isolation. I was told when the men are at work, the women are particularly vulnerable to rape and assault that is unreported as there is little faith in the justice system. A religious activist told me he has been supporting a young lady raped 10 years ago whose court case is ongoing. Her courage to persevere is admirable.

According to another religious activist, the PTA needs to be repealed in good faith as it continues to be used to punish and curtail dissent and instil fear of the LTTE ‘regrouping’. This has overtones of the Internal Security Act (ISA) designed by the British to crush communism. The ISA is still implemented in Singapore and Malaysia.

On his recent visit to Sri Lanka, Mr Pablo de Greiff, the UN Special Rapporteur on the promotion of truth, justice, reparation and guarantees of non-recurrence said citizens have the right to the full truth about violations and violence that took place, an investigation, punishment, reparation, justice [and hopefully reconciliation]. While this is being worked out, what do we do with Sri Lankan refugees and asylum seekers in Australia who for one reason or another have failed to have their claims for protection recognised by a system that sets them up to fail?

Are deportees and returnees safe? What is the role of the International Organisation for Migration (IOM)? Australian Immigration compliance officers and Departmental correspondence say that the role of the IOM is to assist voluntary returnees and provide a financial incentive to ‘reintegrate’ and meet them on arrival at the airport in Colombo.  When I asked if the IOM or the Immigration Department can guarantee the safety of returnees or deportees, the compliance/removal officer simply stated this is not our (Immigration) role. He said the IOM has received only one complaint of violence and all’s well in Sri Lanka. He was unsure of the scope of IOM’s role.

Two young Tamil men deported last year under the enhanced screening policy told me they were beaten on arrival, and reported to the authorities on at least two occasions. The questioning is routine though they live in constant fear of being picked up, detained and tortured. The fear is real.

Another Tamil deportee told me his life is over. He only leaves his house for casual work as he is too afraid to go out. He lives in constant fear of being picked up, detained and tortured. The beatings and harsh interrogation at the airport traumatised him.

I know of another Tamil returnee who said he has not received any assistance, financial or practical from the IOM.  Many people shrugged their shoulders when I raised the role of the IOM.

Close relatives of three Tamil asylum seekers in Australia told me they are being harassed by the authorities asking about their whereabouts. A brother has been beaten and asked to report to the authorities; a wife was visited on a number of occasions and is too scared to report to the police because she would have to give her phone number.

The Australian government has a moral, legal and ethical responsibility to ensure the safety of deportees and returnees.  Under international law, Australia cannot return a person to any place where they risk serious harm, including torture and cruel, inhuman and degrading treatment. A human rights campaigner stated ‘we know that deportees will not have a secure life once they arrive back in their country. I know they all have to pay through their nose and keep the corrupt officials out of [sight] and [their] life is not put in jeopardy….’

This fear may be alleviated if reforms are sincere and faith in the justice system is restored. A legal expert said to me that ‘if the situation is conducive and robust here in Sri Lanka, then those who want to return, will return. Those who decide to remain must be allowed to remain in the second country or third country as it will take years to reach normalcy with [a] political solution’.  

We can’t have it both ways. We know we are sending some people back to danger but there is no monitoring or political will to ensure their safety and positive reintegration. The Sri Lankan government has its own challenges to re-build its economy and to ensure security and safety for its people, including returnees and deportees from abroad.  A network of support for this group of vulnerable people is needed to alleviate fears and provide economic support.

Rebecca Lim is a Brisbane-based migration and community engagement practitioner. Rebecca has post-graduate degrees in Social Science and Australian migration law. In 1980, Rebecca worked with the Indo-Chinese refugees in a refugee camp in Indonesia.  From 2010, she was deployed to detention centres across Australia and offshore to Manus Island, PNG representing asylum seekers and refugees from many countries, including Sri Lanka. Rebecca visited refugee camps and detention centres in India and Hong Kong; and NGO’s in Burma and Thailand. Rebecca is the recipient of a meritorious award by the UN Association of Australia in 2014 in recognition for her contribution in raising awareness and promoting human rights for asylum seekers within Australia and overseas.

Rebecca plans to undertake a PhD research on gender justice and can be contacted on Rebecca.lim.aus@gmail.com

Further reading:

http://www.ohchr.org/EN/NewsEvents/Pages/DisplayNews.aspx?NewsID=15820&LangID=E

http://www.ucanews.com/news/deferral-must-be-used-to-make-sri-lanka-war-crimes-report-stronger/73047

http://groundviews.org/2015/03/02/human-rights-and-50-days-of-sri-lankas-new-presidency/

http://thediplomat.com/2015/04/sri-lanka-can-sirisena-deliver-on-reforms/