Eastern Tamil Asylum Seekers Involuntarily Returned From Australia Face Danger and Intimidation in Sri Lanka


Ben Doherty

(The repatriation of Sri Lankan asylum seekers has, for the moment, ‘stopped the boats’. But many of those forcibly returned to Sri Lanka say they are not safe. Ben Doherty reports from Batticaloa.)

Megaraj Suresh* agrees to meet, after some reluctance, outside a Hindu temple under renovation. We sit under a banyan tree in a corner of the sandy grounds, backs against the trunk, facing out, so we can see anyone coming.

He doesn’t remove his motorbike helmet ”so from a distance, they cannot see it is me”.

”They” are Megaraj’s great worry at present, even if he’s not precisely sure who ”they” are, or when they will come.

”I don’t sleep at night for fear. I know they will come, there might be a white van, government people or paramilitaries, I don’t know who, but I will disappear. They might never find my body.”

Megaraj was involuntarily returned from Australia on November 30 last year. He alleges his claim for asylum was not properly heard.

He says he told Australian authorities he was fleeing threats against his life because he campaigned for an opposition party, but that, in his single interview, his political background was ignored.

Back in Batticaloa, a poor, Tamil-majority city on Sri Lanka’s east coast, three months now, he can’t find work to pay back the massive debt he incurred getting to Australia, and the agent who arranged his trip is hassling him for the money he still owes.

He had a job, but the stigma of being a ”failed”

But it is the fear ”they” will come for him that dominates his daily life.

Megaraj has moved nine times since he’s been back, staying at friends’ houses, with extended family, or sleeping in temples, never in one place more than a few days. He doesn’t answer his phone or go out at night alone.

”They will destroy me, I know that. But my wife and children should be living peacefully.

Fear of abduction is not unfounded in this country.

Post-civil war Sri Lanka is notorious for ”white-van” disappearances, where political opponents of the government are snatched from streets by men driving white vans without number plates.

Citizen journalism organisation Groundviews, part of the Centre for Policy Alternatives, detailed 57 publicly reported disappearances in the first half of 2012. Many of those abducted have not been seen again.

The Sri Lankan government denies responsibility, despite police, in at least one case, confirming the kidnappers were out-of-uniform soldiers.

The international community is not convinced. The US said last year ”serious human rights violations continue, including disappearances, torture, [and] extra-judicial killings”.

Australia, which warns its citizens there is a ”high risk of politically motivated violence” in Sri Lanka, formally told Sri Lanka at the UN it must ”take action to reduce and eliminate all cases of abuse, torture or mistreatment by police and security forces … [and] all cases of abductions and disappearances”.

Fairfax Media first met Megaraj in early December, as he was released from Negombo Prison, where he was held for four days on being repatriated.

He was part of a group of 50 – 38 Tamils and 12 Sinhalese – whose involuntary return from Australia raised serious concerns in both countries, after they alleged their claims for asylum weren’t properly assessed, and that they were granted only one, brief, interview with no avenue for appeal, before being forcibly repatriated.

The United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights said of Australia’s repatriation policies at the time: ”the current procedures raise troubling questions as to both fairness and accuracy which we have raised with the Australian government”.

More than half of the 38 returned Tamils were from Batticaloa.

In a series of independent interviews with six of the returned men, Fairfax is told most of the Batticaloa returnees were campaign workers for the opposition Tamil National Alliance during last year’s provincial council elections.

In September, despite low voter turnout, the TNA won six of 11 seats in Batticaloa, the only district where it beat the ruling United People’s Freedom Alliance coalition.

The result meant the UPFA lost control of the Eastern Provincial Council.

In the aftermath of the poll, marred by more than 300 official complaints of electoral law violations and election-related violence, paramilitary groups allied to the government are alleged to have threatened TNA members and workers.

”They came in the night time, carrying weapons, and told me I should not work for the TNA; they said I would disappear unless I stopped.

”They threatened my life and my family members,” one returnee, Mathi says. Mathi and others took to Australia letters from parliamentarians detailing their party service, and insist they were fleeing political violence, not seeking economic opportunity, when they boarded boats for Australia.

”Some of the men they sent back went for jobs, to earn money for their families, but for most of us, we had to flee for our safety, for our lives,” another man, Kugan, says.

”There was no other reason, I went because my life was threatened. Even now I am still very nervous,” Mathi says.

Since returning, all the men Fairfax spoke to said they had been visited by Sri Lanka police’s Criminal Investigation Department for further investigation, and all but one have had their homes intruded upon at night by unidentified, armed men who have threatened them, telling them they, or their families, would be harmed if they continued their political activities.

The Batticaloa men are all out of prison on personal bail – if they don’t appear in court a family member can be jailed in their place – before court hearings in the next two months.

Twenty-seven-year-old Rajesh, who has left Batticaloa for another city, told Fairfax if it wasn’t for his court case, he would have fled Sri Lanka again.

”If my father was not my personal bail, I would already be gone. As soon as it is over, I will try to leave again, any way I can, to any country, because I can’t live here,” Rajesh said.

The Sri Lankan government firmly rejects claims that returned asylum seekers, particularly those in political opposition to the government, face any persecution.

Media Minister Keheliya Rambukwella told Fairfax claims of intimidation were confected for political purposes, and charges of illegal migration were regularly set aside by courts.

”The people who come back face no problems. There are no repercussions.

”The constitution says there are some legal implications for people who leave the country illegally, but we have relaxed that a lot. People will have to appear before a magistrate, but many have been pardoned; it is an understanding between the two countries.’

Australia, too, says all returnees are safe in their countries of origin. No person is returned if it is believed they might face any form of persecution, a spokesman for the Immigration Department told Fairfax.

”Officers from the Australian High Commission in Colombo have indicated that there is no evidence of the persecution of returnees following their arrival in Sri Lanka.”

All ”irregular maritime arrivals” to Australia are individually screened to determine whether they raise Australia’s protection obligations.

An initial interview determines an asylum-seeker’s identity, reasons for leaving their country of origin and reason for coming to Australia.

Based on this interview, people are screened ”in” or ”out” of the protection process.

”If at any stage people raise claims that may … engage Australia’s protection obligations, these claims are assessed on their individual merits.”

From Sri Lanka’s shores, for now, the boats have stopped.

In 2012, 6428 Sri Lankans arrived on Australian shores seeking asylum.

So far in 2013, the figure is 45.

A massive public awareness campaign run by the Australian government across Sri Lanka appears to have worked. Visits by ministers and senior public servants have attracted English, Sinhala and Tamil language press coverage, and an advertising blitzkrieg, warning over and over again ”there is no visa on arrival … no speedy outcome, and … no special treatment” has, after initially being disbelieved, gained currency.

The office of the Immigration Minister believes the government’s policies, in particular offshore processing and the rapid return of asylum seekers adjudged not to engage Australia’s protection obligations, are beginning to act as deterrents to people leaving.

But there are other factors at work.

Weather has played a part. The winds off Sri Lanka make putting a boat out more difficult now, and the seasonal “swells” off Christmas Island make the other end of the voyage especially fraught.

The Sri Lankan government believes increased naval interdiction, and the arrest of people smuggling ringleaders, has broken the back of ”their illegal trade”.

”And Australia has made the right decision to send people back quickly,” Mr Rambukwella says. ”By accepting them it was sending the wrong message and encouraging people to try to take this risky journey.”

But it is perhaps the returnees themselves, some arriving back in Sri Lanka just weeks after being spirited to Australia, that has acted as the greatest deterrent.

Nine hundred and thirty six men have been returned to Sri Lanka since offshore processing was restarted in August, 735 of those against their will, with no resettlement assistance.

Returned asylum seekers say they are shunned by their communities, even their own families, as ”failures”.

From snide comments to outright hostility, they are told they have wasted their opportunity to get out, with nothing to show for it, save for a crippling debt.

Says Megaraj as we rise to leave, walking in opposite directions from the temple grounds, ”it was my worst mistake, I have lost everything, I have no job, I have debt, and my problems are not gone.

”Before I left, I thought my life could not be any worse. But now it is.”

(Ben Doherty is South Asia correspondent for Fairfax Media for which this article was written)