Australian government deports Sri Lankan asylum-seekers

By Richard Phillips
12 October 2009

Two years ago during the last federal election the Australian Labor Party claimed that if elected it would adopt a “humane” attitude towards asylum-seekers and refugees. Last week the Rudd government—in yet another demonstration that it has no fundamental policy differences with the former Howard administration—expelled six Sri Lankan asylum-seekers, claiming that they were not genuine refugees.

Those deported in the past fortnight were part of a group of 12 Sinhalese Sri Lankan fishermen who were detained last year after sailing to Western Australia’s Shark Bay, about 800 kilometres north of the state capital Perth, in November. The mainly young men were moved to the Christmas Island detention centre, north of the Australian mainland, where they have spent the last 11 months.

After their appeals to the refugee tribunal and the Minister of Immigration were rejected, four of the group were persuaded to “voluntarily” return to Sri Lanka. Two others—Indika and Sumith Mendis—were forcibly deported a few days later on October 4. Sumith was expelled from Australia in handcuffs, with no shoes or shirt.

Three other Sri Lankans in the Perth Detention Centre are currently appealing their deportation in the High Court. They received phone calls from relatives in Sri Lanka on Sunday, saying some of those who “voluntarily” returned had not contacted their families after arriving in Colombo. They had been released from the airport but went into hiding, fearing police intimidation and death threats from the owner of the boat they used to sail to Australia and money lenders from whom they borrowed funds for the trip.

Indika and Sumith Mendis, who were forcibly deported, were detained by police on arrival in Colombo. Indika was arrested on so-called people smuggling charges and, according to the Melbourne-based Asylum Seeker Resource Centre (ASRC), was beaten by police. He is currently in Negombo Prison. The ASRC was told by Sri Lankan police that no date had been set for Indika’s trial and that he would not be given bail.

The Mendis brothers had previously informed Australian immigration officials that the owner of the boat they sailed to Australia had threatened to kill them because they had failed to pick up an extra 50 passengers for the trip. Sumith Mendis later told the media: “Everybody at Australian immigration said nothing was going to happen to us when we got to Sri Lanka. We pleaded with them not to return us. Now my brother is in jail and when I go to see him I am frightened because they say they will take me as well.”

ASRC spokesperson Pamela Curr told the WSWS that the boat owner was a wealthy man and a relative of Sri Lanka’s fisheries minister Felix Perera. He was recently allowed by Sri Lankan authorities to move to Italy where he will escape any charges.

Indifferent to the plight of the Sri Lankans and thousands of other poverty-stricken refugees, Immigration Minister Chris Evans made clear that the deportations would be the first of many. “All irregular maritime arrivals found not to be owed protection and with no other basis to remain in Australia will be removed,” he said.

There should be “no doubt” about Labor’s tough policy, Evans continued. “Someone who is simply seeking better economic opportunities in Australia does not meet the criteria for a protection visa,” he said.

The policy is identical to that of the Howard government, which forced scores of refugees from China, Afghanistan, Iraq, Iran and other countries to return home between 1996 and 2007. While there are no precise figures because Australian authorities seek to cover up the consequences, some of those expelled were killed or jailed soon after being deported to their home countries.

Last year the Australian documentary, A Well Founded Fear, reported that at least 20 Afghans “removed” by the Howard government were killed after returning home. Several Afghans told reporters that they had been informed by Australian officials that it was “safe” to go back to Afghanistan and that they would be kept in detention for the rest of their lives unless they left.

According to the documentary, many of the returned asylum seekers have had to hide in Pakistan or move between Pakistan and Afghanistan in order to escape political persecution and possibly death.

Media hails deportations

The Murdoch-owned newspapers, which never miss an opportunity to whip up anti-asylum seeker sentiment, immediately praised last week’s deportations. An October 5 story in the Australian was headlined “Bogus asylum pair are sent packing” gloated over the expulsions.

The Herald Sun, Daily Telegraph and the Australian, regularly feature comments demonising asylum seekers and criticising the Rudd government for being “soft” on refugees. Labor has, in fact, boosted “border protection” spending by an additional $650 million this year.

On October 6, the Australian published a lurid front-page story claiming that a group of Tamil asylum-seekers detained at Christmas Island were possible members of the separatist Liberation Tamil Tigers of Eelam (LTTE) and a potential terrorist threat to Australia.

The article was a cynical beat-up. Using the unsubstantiated allegations of Sri Lanka’s High Commissioner, Senaka Walgampaya, and various unnamed Australian security and immigration official, it sought to heighten fears of terrorist attacks. Its chief purpose, however, was to divert attention from Labor’s deportations the previous weekend.

Entitled “Boatpeople facing expulsion over security concerns on former Tamil fighters”, the article claimed that Tamil detainees could be LTTE fighters “trying to pass themselves off as asylum-seekers”.

The young men, the newspaper alleged, had “injuries consistent with warfare” and “had aroused the suspicion of guards with their regimented behaviour, such as exercising in small groups at first light.” It also claimed that the Australian Security and Intelligence Organisation (ASIO) might be about to issue “adverse security assessments” against “some” Sri Lankan detainees.

High Commissioner Walgampaya’s claims that LTTE members could be among the latest asylum-seekers reaching Australia are baseless and reflect entrenched official prejudice in Colombo that Tamils as a whole are potential if not actual “terrorists”. The government is currently detaining more than 250,000 Tamil civilians in military-run camps.

Several points must be made about the Australian’s provocative article. Firstly, the LTTE is a Tamil separatist group, not a transnational terrorist organisation equivalent to or linked with Al Qaeda. Secondly, even if some asylum seekers had fought with the LTTE, that would serve to confirm their status as refugees under international and Australian law. In Sri Lanka, Tamils rounded up as “LTTE suspects” are held indefinitely without trial, and, in some cases, tortured or “disappeared”.

The Australian article coincided with news that the Rudd government has launched a multi-million dollar advertising campaign in Sri Lanka to discourage anyone considering travelling to Australia by “irregular means” and applying for asylum. The campaign is primarily aimed at the minority Tamils, who are being subjected to an intensified racialist oppression following the military defeat of the LTTE in May.

While it treats asylum seekers as virtual criminals, the Rudd government is in many cases responsible for the disasters that drive poverty-stricken people to risk their lives sailing to Australia in overcrowded, unsafe fishing boats. It openly backed the US-led wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, and tacitly supported the Sri Lankan government’s renewed communal war against the island’s Tamil minority.

Canberra’s close collaboration with the Rajapakse government is in line with extensive investments in Sri Lanka by Australian corporations. According to Australia’s Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade, Sri Lanka’s largest single industrial employer is the Australian-owned and highly profitable Ansell Lanka rubber products plant in the Biyagama Export Processing Zone.

Along with exports to Sri Lanka by Australian agricultural and industrial producers, there are also lucrative profits being made by Australian tertiary education providers in Sri Lanka and from the more than 8,000 Sri Lankan students in Australia.

A week before the deportations Australian foreign minister Stephen Smith issued a statement expressing the Rudd government’s “appreciation for Sri Lanka’s cooperation on the people smuggling and trafficking issues” and making clear that this would continue.

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