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Australia Changes the Asylum Seeker policy for Sri Lankan Boat People

April 14, 2010

Australia Changes the Asylum Seeker policy for Sri Lankan Boat People


Few people other than Sri Lankans have any understanding of the current post war situation in that nation. Almost as few would be able tell you if Sri Lanka is part of India or not. Thus we have a strange situation where the broader Australian community is very reliant upon self appointed experts, journalists and academics to fill the gaps of knowledge. The desire to know about the details of Sri Lanka appears to only go as far as how it may affect the local politics in Australia. There are small groups of NGOs, INGOs, activists, human rights lawyers and interested people, but they are vastly outnumbered by people only see post war Sri Lanka in terms of refugees or boat people. I am not condemning such people as the world is a big place where “lotsa stuff happens” everyday. Post War Sri Lanka is just not as news worthy and exciting as a War
Torn Sri Lanka.


One of the spin-offs of post war Sri Lanka has been the stream of asylum seeks using boats to make a passage to Australia. In the Howard era any such boat people immediately fell under the Pacific Solution and were sent to foreign island, such Nauru, to languish for years as their refugee claims were slowly processed. With the passing of Howard a government the now incumbent Rudd Government dropped the Pacific Solution policy to adopt what it described as a more compassionate and reasonable solution, citing a reduction in boat people in part of its justification. Yet within just a few years boat people have once more started to flow. The Christmas Island detention facility that was nearly empty just two years ago is currently overflowing with asylum seekers picked up on the high seas, or in dangerous rescue missions. Many of the asylum seekers are coming from Afghanistan (who I will refrain from commenting on) and others are Sri Lankans.


There is a false assumption that all the Sri Lankan asylum seekers hopped on a boat in the north of the homeland island and sailed directly as they could to Australian waters. This was shown to be false when a boatload of mostly Sri Lankan Tamil asylum seekers set sail from Indonesia where they had been staying as refugees for years. There was no question about where these people had embarked on the boat as many had paid huge bribes to be included on the passenger lists. One of the passengers had nominated himself the spokesman for the group had also been to Canada and had close association with the banned terrorist organization the Liberation Tiger Tamils of Eelam (LTTE). Had there been an open door policy of boat arrivals then this man would have slipped into Australia bringing with him his wealth of terrorist connections to our shore. The seriousness of this matter cannot be underestimated. Processing just to screen for such people was necessary. How long such processing takes is a different matter.


As a deterrent the Rudd Government announced in the last week that Afghan and Sri Lankan boat arrivals would have their claim for asylum held off for 3 months. Almost as soon as the Rudd Government announced human rights lawyers and asylum advocates condemned the policy.


Dr Michelle Foster is director of the research program in international refugee law at Melbourne Law School wrote an article in the National Times News on 13 April 2010 condemning the Rudd Government for violating its commitment to refugees. Dr Forster article condemns statements from the government that the situation in Sri Lanka has improved. The government is arguing that the need for genuine refuge has diminished but Dr Foster wants to onus on the government to prove that situation is safe for each individual. What this has to do with processing such claims was never explained.



On 14 April 2010 Professor Damien Kingsbury from Deakin University wrote an article titled “Refugee suspensions turns victims into criminals.”


Damian, who holds a personal chair in the School of International and Political Studies at Deakin University, condemned the Rudd governments move. He opened the article asking the readers to imagine their worst fears about becoming a refugee then writes: “This is the situation facing Sri Lanka’s Tamils and many Afghanis, who in desperation seek refuge in one of the countries lucky enough to be able to offer it. What they find, however, is that they are treated as criminals.

Damien continues later stating that, “…For a start, identifying two ethnic groups for differentiated treatment is implicitly racist and explicitly contravenes the Racial Discrimination Act. The government is breaking its own law….”

The assumption that Prof Kingsbury has taken is that this action is specifically aimed at two ethnic groups. Afghan I will leave to one side as my I have little expertise in that area. However the decision brought on by the Rudd Government only refers to Sri Lankans. It does not differentiate based upon the ethnic origin of those Sri Lankan, whether they be: Tamil, Singhalese, Burger or Muslim. The accusation of implicit racism would only be true if it specifically labelled one ethnic group or one race.


Prof Kingsbury disagrees with the government assessment of the security situation in Afghanistan and Sri Lanka. “Clearly he (The Minister for Immigration Chris Evans) is receiving poor advice about the situation on the ground in both places,he writes, then adds,and perhaps does not even read daily newspaper.”
The Professor’s own assessment of the current situation in Sri Lanka is as follows: In Sri Lanka, ethnic Tamils are now openly persecuted on the basis of their ethnicity, removed from their lands and made second class citizens, if that, in their own homes.”
He gives no reference for this assessment and so the reader is left with only his word against that of the Department of Immigration and its Minister.


Finally Prof Kingsbury plays loose with the facts claiming that :
“Just days ago, recently re-elected President Mahinda Rajapaksa told a Tamil gathering that if they did not like the new situation in Sri Lanka, in which about 100,000 are still in concentration camps and hundreds of thousands more are homeless, they should leave
.” Again there is no reference to this statement and so the reader is left wonder how is able to obtain its accuracy. An extensive search of the main news sources on the Internet show no evidence of this story

The assessment that Prof Kingsbury gives is at odds with direct report from Sri Lankan Government call “Welfare Camps“. They are not being called concentration camps by UNHCR or the Red Cross, both organizations have agents working in the camps. More recently the Sri Lankan Government released over 1500 former LTTE cadres back into the general population. Had they been set up as concentration camps then there is no way that former LTTE fighters would be released.



The situation in Sri Lanka has changed with end of the Civil War. The situation is not ideal and much work still needs to be done, but it is a far cry from the state of conflict that raged over three decades. Careful consideration must be given to those who are genuine refugees. People who spend several years in an interim nation such as India, Indonesia or Canada are not in the same category because they have already found immediate refuge from danger. The problem of LTTE agents and cadres slipping into this nation should not be underestimated. The LTTE has used its hold over the Tamils in England, France and Canada to intimidate and extort finances for the civil war and terrorist activities. There also needs to be a way of deterring people from taking the risk to their lives by sailing all the way to Australia from Sri Lanka.


The Rudd Government has made a hard decision in revoking the automatic processing of Sri Lankans and Afghans but like most tough decision it is controversial. The question is whether they made the correct decision. It also needs to be asked why Australia is being targeted as the land of destination when India is a mere 50 nautical miles away from Sri Lanka. (Thousands of Sri Lankan Tamil refugees have already taken that option and now reside in India.) India, Burma, Thailand and Indonesia are all thousands of kilometres closer to Sri Lanka. If he need for refuge was so dire why are they not seeking out the closest port of escape? Or are they shopping around?


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