Immigration

'Sri Lanka not safe for Tamils': Refugee group sounds alarm on deportation

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The Biloela Tamil family could be sent back to Sri Lanka as early as Friday.

The Biloela Tamil family was given another reprieve from deportation on Wednesday but a war of words is continuing around what conditions they may face if sent to Sri Lanka.

The Australian government is showing no sign of backing down on the case of Priya, Nades and their two Australian-born daughters, maintaining Sri Lanka will be safe for them.

It's a point that some Tamil Australians strongly push back against.

"What people need to understand is that the Sri Lankan government committed a genocide against Tamils just 10 years ago. More than 100,000 Tamils were murdered by the Sri Lankan armed forces," spokesman for the Tamil Refugee Council Aran Mylvaganam told SBS News.

Tamil Refugee Council Aran Mylvaganam says it's not safe for the family to return.
Tamil Refugee Council Aran Mylvaganam says it's not safe for the family to return.
AAP

From 1983-2009, the Sri Lankan military fought a bloody civil war against the Tamil Tigers separatist group, with the government emerging victorious.

The UN found both sides committed war crimes during the conflict but no government officials have faced prosecution.

Priya and Nades fled the fighting and came to Australia separately by boat in 2012 and 2013. Priya claims during the conflict she saw her fiance and five others burned alive and Nades, who has links to the Tamil Tigers, said he was injured in a government bombing.

While open warfare is long over in Sri Lanka, Mr Mylvaganam said the persecution and discrimination of Tamils continues.

And he said that "there have been many cases of Tamils being tortured on their return", although the Sri Lankan government has denied this.

"Sri Lanka is not safe for Tamils. It's a very dangerous place for Tamils," he said.

Stalled reconciliation

Dr Matt Withers, a Sri Lanka expert at Macquarie University, told SBS News that in the 10 years since the civil war ended, reconciliation had stalled and "continuing ethnic discontent is very much alive".

"In the aftermath of the civil war, there has been very little genuine reconciliation or redevelopment in [Tamil-majority] areas in the north," he said.

The family's fate will be considered at a court hearing in Melbourne on Friday.
The family's fate will be considered at a court hearing in Melbourne on Friday.
Supplied

"We've seen very little, or perhaps no demilitarisation. There are still army barracks scattered across the north and east provinces of Sri Lanka and there is a heavy police presence."

Dr Withers said although "it's hard to speak specifically to the sorts of conditions this family will encounter, I'm inclined to agree there is a high likelihood of structural discrimination, if not a real threat of violence".

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And he said that the political situation in Sri Lanka could quickly turn volatile.

"The real political backdrop to all of this now is that Gotabhaya Rajapaksa, the former defence secretary, who oversaw the war and many atrocities [against the Tamils] is now a presidential candidate and perhaps favourite for the upcoming election," he said.

Sri Lanka's former Defense Secretary Nandasena Gotabhaya Rajapaksa addresses the Sri Lanka Podujana Peramuna's (SLPP) national convention.
Sri Lanka's former Defense Secretary Nandasena Gotabhaya Rajapaksa addresses the Sri Lanka Podujana Peramuna's (SLPP) national convention.
AAP

Tamil advocates also point to a 2018 report by the UN Special Rapporteur on the Promotion and Protection of Human Rights and Fundamental Freedoms Ben Emmerson.

"The Special Rapporteur observed a pervasive and insidious form of stigmatisation of the Tamil community [in Sri Lanka]," the report said.

"The pervasive lack of accountability for the war crimes that were perpetrated during the war, the climate of impunity that prevails within the security sector, the overwhelming economic weight of the military, its involvement in civilian activities, as well as the overwhelmingly Sinhalese nationality within the military all contribute to perpetuating the resentment and disenfranchisement felt by the Tamil community as a whole," it said.

Australian government confident

But the Australian government paints a very different picture.

The Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade (DFAT) 2018 report into Sri Lanka says "Sri Lankans of all backgrounds face a low risk of official or societal discrimination based on ethnicity, including in relation to access to education, employment or housing".

"DFAT assesses that no laws or official policies discriminate on the basis of political opinion, nor is there systemic political discrimination against any particular group," the report said.

Home Affairs Minister Peter Dutton.
Home Affairs Minister Peter Dutton.
AAP

The department also said, "the risk of torture perpetrated by either military, intelligence or police forces has decreased since the end of the civil conflict and is no longer state-sponsored".

"Because few reports of torture are verified, it is difficult to determine the prevalence of torture but DFAT assesses that irrespective of religion, ethnicity, geographic location, or other identity, Sri Lankans face a low risk of mistreatment that can amount to torture."

'Safe to return'

Priya, Nades and their daughters are currently being held on Christmas Island, about 2000km from Perth, as they await the outcome of a last-ditch legal effort to stay.

An injunction against the family's deportation has been extended until Friday, when their case returns to the Federal Court in Melbourne.

The court will decide on an application on behalf of the youngest child for Australia's protection.

The Department of Home Affairs told SBS News: "this family's case has been assessed, over many years, by the department and various merits review bodies. These decisions have also been the subject of judicial review applications in the courts".

SBS News contacted the Sri Lanka High Commission for comment on this story but is yet to receive a reply.

Sri Lankan Consul General to Australia Lal Raj Wickrematunga previously told SBS News it was "safe" for the family to return.

"As far as the Sri Lankan government is concerned, Sri Lanka is safe for Tamil families to return," he said.

"The government has made an appeal for all those who've left Sri Lanka and sought refugee status elsewhere to come back."

Home Affairs Minister Peter Dutton has said 1,500 other Tamils who arrived in Australia by boat have "safely" been deported back to Sri Lanka.

On Wednesday, Prime Minister Scott Morrison Morrison dismissed pleas to let the Biloela Tamil family stay as "Twitter public sentiment".

"It's about doing the right thing by the national interest. It's not about chasing public sentiment," he told reporters in Melbourne 

"I understand absolutely the motivation and the compassion that Australians have expressed in relation to this case."

"But I also know from bitter experience that if you make the wrong calls on these issues, then you invite tragedy and you invite chaos."

With additional reporting from AAP

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