When Sri Lanka’s civil war ended in 2009, up to one million people were left displaced and a major refugee crisis unfolded. Here, SBS News travels to northern Sri Lanka to find out what happened to the Tamil asylum seekers who fled their homeland and tried to rebuild their lives in Australia, only to be sent back.
It's shortly after sunrise on the Jaffna Peninsula in northern Sri Lanka, and Anthonippillai Tharshan is returning after several hours at sea.
He set out around midnight to bring back a catch of small fish and crabs to sell at local markets.
It’s an honest living and one that he’s grateful for given the tumultuous events of his life.
Like thousands of others, in the aftermath of Sri Lanka’s civil war, Anthonippillai decided to board an asylum seeker boat bound for Australia in 2012.
He spent 21 days onboard with little food and water before ending up in immigration detention for six months in Australia.
“I was in Christmas Island for 15 days. After that I was transferred to detention centres in Darwin and in Queensland,” he tells SBS News.
He says that when he left, the Jaffna Peninsula and its predominantly Tamil people were still recovering from decades of war.
Sri Lanka’s civil war raged for 26 years and was fought between Tamil separatists demanding their own state and government troops seeking to quash the rebellion.
Both sides were accused of human rights abuses, including the indiscriminate killing of civilians, enforced disappearances and the use of child soldiers.
The war finally ended in 2009, when government military offensives obliterated the Tamil Tigers in the rebel-held north and east of Sri Lanka.
Like many others in his situation, Anthonipillai doesn’t want to talk about why he left Sri Lanka. Fear of harassment and persecution by security forces is still widespread among Tamils, a decade since the end of the war.
But he recalls fondly the two years he spent living and working in an abattoir in regional New South Wales while in community detention.
“I worked hard during the week, and enjoyed weekends off. We had good jobs.”
But his relief to be in Australia was short-lived.
After working at the abattoir for a year, his refugee application was rejected by the Australian government. Anthonippillai appealed the decision, but the application was rejected a second time.
After that, his right to work in Australia was cut off, so too any access to welfare payments. In 2015, he says he was given 28 days to leave the country.
“They stopped us from working. After that, the government didn’t give us money to buy food,” he says.
“With no money, we didn’t know what to do. So I had to make the decision to return.”
Sent back by Australia
In this part of the world, stories of failed attempts to build a new life in Australia are not difficult to find.
In a roadside shack near the town of Mullaitivu, Subramaniyam Mahendran tells SBS News he escaped a refugee camp in the post-war years and travelled to Australia by boat in 2012.
“[During the civil war] so many people suffered and died from my area. They lost their children, they lost their parents,” he says.
He boarded a 40-foot boat with about 80 other asylum seekers.
“People had wounds for sitting for so long. Some had difficulty breathing, were suffocating before we even reached our destination,” he says.
Subramaniyam was transferred to the Australia mainland from Christmas Island and spent three months in multiple detention centres.
He was released into community detention pending the outcome of his application for a refugee visa and also found work in a regional New South Wales abattoir.
But after two years, his refugee application was rejected when he says officials from the Australian Department of Immigration and Border Protection told him it was safe to return to Sri Lanka.
Subramaniyam says he had settled in well to life in Australia and can’t understand why he wasn’t allowed to stay.
“I was paying taxes, not taking anything from the government. We were making a positive thing, so why did they remove us?”
Now doing basic metal works to make a living, he too tries to keep a low profile, not wanting to attract the attention of local authorities.
In November, former defence secretary Gotabaya Rajapaksa, a man accused of war crimes against the Tamils as well as enforced disappearances of journalists and political opponents, was elected Sri Lanka’s new president.
“The government [in Sri Lanka] has changed, and we don’t know what type of problems will come," Subramaniyam says.
"We are just trying to go about our daily lives. We still have fear from what happened in the past."
For several years, the Australian and Sri Lankan governments have worked closely to stop people seeking to come to Australia by boat.
In May this year, Minister for Home Affairs Peter Dutton visited Sri Lanka to discuss bilateral efforts to stop asylum seeker boats departing for Australia.
But much has changed in Sri Lanka since then.
In the weeks since the election, already there have been reports an official working at the embassy of Switzerland in Sri Lanka’s capital Colombo was abducted, as journalists and critics of the government have fled the country.
A source speaking on condition of anonymity told SBS News human rights advocates in particular are increasingly fearful – worried the dreaded ‘white vans’ - government vehicles linked to political abductions - are again being seen around the country.
But despite the change in Sri Lankan politics, the Australian government says it has no plans to reconsider its policy of returning Tamil asylum seekers back to Sri Lanka or its cooperation with the Sri Lankan government to stop seeking asylum by boat in the first place.
"The Australian Government will continue working closely with Sri Lankan authorities to end the dangerous crime of maritime people smuggling, both before and after boats take to the water," a spokesperson for the Department of Home Affairs said.
"We cooperate closely with the Sri Lankan government to return people who have been intercepted trying to reach Australia illegally, and have returned 38 Sri Lankan nationals across three vessels since May 2019."
The Department of Home Affairs says every Sri Lankan people-smuggling boat that has entered Australian waters in the past five-and-a-half years has been stopped, and all those on board returned to Sri Lanka.
Legal battles continue
In Jaffna, a group of young Tamil men say few people nowadays would risk getting on board a boat to come to Australia, out of fear of fines or imprisonment by Sri Lankan authorities.
“From here, if we try and go, the Australian government will send us back,” one says.
“Or if the Sri Lankan navy captures us, the consequences are very bad. We will be charged, and put in prison for five or six years”.
The young man explains that many asylum seekers do not use their own money to pay people smugglers, but borrow the money one way or another.
“They don’t use their own money to go. They borrow the money, they mortgage their home,” he says.
“After going there and being sent back, they’ve lost everything. Life for them is going to be very difficult”.
One of the young men in the group knows first hand the risks involved. He borrowed $5,000 for a place onboard an asylum seeker boat in 2013. But it was intercepted by Australian authorities en route to Christmas Island and he was sent back to Sri Lanka.
He’s been further trapped in a legal battle with Sri Lankan authorities ever since.
“For the past six years, the court case is still going on. To close the case, they’re asking me to pay $1,000,” he says.
Among the Tamil asylum seekers sent back from Australia, being caught in lengthy, confusing legal battles is a common feature of their return to Sri Lanka.
Sebamalai Jesupalam from Mullaitivu says the asylum seeker boat he was on in 2012 was stopped by the Sri Lankan navy. He still attends mandatory court hearings in the city of Negombo.
"When our boat was captured, they didn’t tell us what the exact charges are. But I can remember they said the journey we were undertaking was illegal," he said.
In Jaffna, SBS News finds an entire family with two young children who were flown back to Colombo after reaching Christmas Island in 2014.
They spent their first night in Sri Lanka in custody and say they’ve have had to appear before a court in Negombo every six months ever since.
“When we go to the court, they call out our names and we raise our hands,” says mother Suresh Jubita Nirmali.
“[The court] writes down when our next court appearance will be and that’s it. The judge will call our names, and our duty is just to raise our hands”.
She says she does not know what offence, if any, either she or her husband have been charged with.
“[The authorities] never told us. We just go there, and have our names called.”
Their stories come as a Tamil family-of-four who have been living in Biloela, Queensland, face deportation by the Australian government.
Despite community support for them to stay, they are currently on Christmas Island awaiting their next hearing.
Joseph Arulraj travelled by boat and sought asylum in Australia in 2012. But after waiting in community detention for five years without having his refugee claim resolved, he returned to Sri Lanka voluntarily to reunite with his family.
“Everyone was being arrested during that period. Anything could happen at that time, so that’s why I left.”
Since he’s returned, Joseph says he avoids leaving the house – afraid he’ll be targeted by police or military.
“We were living in war for 30 years. We still feel this is a tense situation here.”
The Australian Government stands by its process of assessing asylum seeker applications and deporting those that are not granted refugee visas.
"Australia takes its international protection obligations seriously and does not remove people who engage those protection obligations," a spokesperson for the Department of Home Affairs said.
"All applications for protection visas are assessed on a case by case basis using current and comprehensive country information ... all returns are conducted in accordance with Australian and international law.
"People who have no lawful basis to remain in Australia are expected to return home."
He says predicting what will happen to Tamil asylum seekers who return to Sri Lanka has become even more complex after the election.
“Before November 16th I would have been more positive. I would have said there would be no harm,” he says.
“But sending [asylum seekers] back at this time, I think foreign governments should wait six to twelve months …to see how the president deals with particular minorities or handles the surveillance of particular minority groups.”
Dr Sarvananthan says it is too simplistic to say that since Sri Lanka’s civil war ended a decade ago, it is safe for asylum seekers to return.
“Surveillance here continues, there could be plain-clothes police here watching … there are particular groups of people who require protection by foreign countries,” he says.
With the deportation of the Biloela family looming amid a quickly changing political scene, Dr Sarvananthan says patience from foreign governments is needed.
“If [the Australian government] want to discourage asylum seeker, that’s fine. But I don’t think any government is justified in rushing to send people back right now,” he says.
“Whatever the particular circumstances of the individual cases are … this is a transition in Sri Lanka right now.
“We don’t know what the future will be like. It could be a reversal of the freedom we have gained over the last five years.”