Australian government forces refugees back to face repression in Sri Lanka

Australian Home Affairs Minister Peter Dutton landed in Colombo on Monday for a two-day visit to reinforce the collaboration between the two countries’ governments to stop refugees fleeing Sri Lanka’s latest violent outbreak of communal violence and the government’s military crackdown.

His trip came just after the Australian navy seized a vessel carrying 20 asylum seekers, including at least one baby, from Sri Lanka. Under tight military secrecy, they were reportedly transferred to Christmas Island, an Indian Ocean outpost, and quickly removed to Sri Lanka, where they could face imprisonment and torture.

This was the latest illegal boat “turnback” conducted under “Operation Sovereign Borders,” which utilises the armed forces to intercept and block all refugee boats attempting to reach Australia. The entire operation is a direct violation of the 1951 Refugee Convention, which prohibits the removal of asylum seekers to face a risk of death, harm or persecution.

Dutton was due to meet Sri Lankan President Maithripala Sirisena and Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe on Tuesday. Dutton would “prosecute Operation Sovereign Borders’ interests,” Dutton’s spokeswoman told News Corp Australia. “We greatly value the ongoing cooperation on regional maritime security.”

Operation Sovereign Borders’ aircraft this week began three days of patrols over the waters near Christmas Island. Dutton’s office would not confirm reports that up to six boats might have set out from Sri Lanka for Australia, with a spokeswoman again refusing to comment on “operational matters.”

These desperate voyages follow the bombings of three churches and three hotels on April 21 by Islamist extremists, leaving more than 250 people dead. Due to the operation’s police-state secrecy, little is known about the latest asylum seekers, including their background and ethnicity. However, the Sri Lankan media and political establishment are whipping up communal tensions and violence, blaming the country’s Muslims for the terrorist attacks.

Dutton seized upon the boat’s interception to reiterate Australia’s brutal anti-refugee policy. “The prime minister and I are absolutely resolute in making sure that we can never allow people to come here by boat,” he told 2GB radio.

Dutton blamed the May 18 Australian election, which the Labor Party expected to win, for the arrival of the boat, claiming that asylum seekers had anticipated a softening of the anti-refugee policy.

In reality, with more than 60 million asylum seekers now fleeing wars and oppression around the world, refugee boats have not stopped trying to reach Australia. As of mid-January, Operation Sovereign Borders officially had “disrupted” 80 refugee ventures since its inception in September 2013, including 17 last year.

Because of the government’s secrecy, however, there is no way of knowing how many more boats have been intercepted, or sank at sea trying to escape detection. There is also clear evidence that both Labor and Liberal-National Coalition governments have bribed so-called “people smugglers” to take the asylum seekers back to the country they fled.

The return of a Labor government would not have changed the policy. Since the election, Labor has reiterated its support for “Operation Sovereign Borders” and for the detention of refugees in “offshore” Pacific island camps.

In fact, Labor’s new shadow home affairs minister Kristina Keneally, who previously feigned sympathy for refugees, has accused Dutton of letting too many into Australia. She demanded to know why Dutton had earlier “stopped these crucial border patrols” by the air force before resuming them in February.

Keneally further condemned Dutton for allegedly permitting about 80,000 asylum seekers to arrive by plane over the past four years. “Peter Dutton has in fact allowed people smugglers to evolve their business model from using boats to using planes,” she told the Sydney Morning Herald.

It was the Greens-backed Labor Government of Julia Gillard that instigated the illegal deportation of Sri Lankan refugees without allowing them to apply for asylum. In 2012, in a bid to strengthen geo-political ties with Sri Lanka, it struck a deal with then President Mahinda Rajapakse, which led to the mass deportation of nearly 700 asylum seekers.

In September 2017, the Australian High Court sanctioned this criminal practice, despite evidence that those deported were arrested by Sri Lanka’s police Criminal Investigation Department (CID). Returned refugees were kept in inhumane and cramped conditions, subject to violence, maltreatment and torture.

While falsely depicted in the media as less draconian than Rajapakse’s, the current Sri Lankan government has continued these arrangements. It has also exploited the April 21 bombings to impose a state of emergency and sweeping repressive measures, which include military house-to-house searches.

Within Australia, a number of Sri Lankan families languish in “community detention,” constantly monitored by Border Force, a para-military organisation, with the threat of deportation hanging over their heads.

Some families have been seized by Border Force, under the cover of darkness or in the early hours of the morning, and swiftly deported to Sri Lanka. In March 2017, the residents of Biloela, a rural town in the state of Queensland, launched a powerful and ongoing campaign to prevent a local family from being deported.

This response reflects widespread public outrage over the treatment of refugees despite the bipartisan line-up. Working-class people in Australia and internationally are appalled at the violence and cruelty inflicted on asylum seekers and immigrants. Australia’s persecution of refugees has set a global precedent. To evade detection, asylum seekers are drowning in the Mediterranean, they face police attacks and barbed wire across Europe, and thousands, including children, are being imprisoned in the United States.