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Tamils facing new atrocities in Sri Lanka

  • 04 July 2014

On Monday morning Australians learnt that two boats of Tamil asylum seekers had been intercepted off Christmas Island. Now there are unconfirmed reports that Australia is handing them over to the Sri Lankan navy without assessing their claims for protection. 

At least one of the vessels intercepted in high seas contained 153 Tamil asylum seekers, originally from Sri Lanka. These included 37 children, one of whom was only aged three months and was sick. The Tamils had been almost two weeks at sea in their 22-metre boat. A Tamil asylum seeker on-board told the ABC: ‘We are refugees. We come from Sri Lanka — we stayed in India and we are unable to live there. That’s why we are coming to Australia’.

These Tamils previously sought refuge in India from Sri Lanka’s 1983-2009 extremely brutal civil war. In 2011 a UN expert panel identified war crimes such as abductions, torture and disappearances, in which high government officials were implicated. Over 100,000 people were killed and one million displaced. Tamils were exposed daily to air strikes and atrocities, forcing many to flee to India.

India is not a signatory to the 1951 Refugee Convention. Refugees have no right to freedom of movement. India’s Foreigners Act 1946 and Citizenship Act 1955 define all non-citizens who enter without visas to be illegal migrants, with no exception for refugees or asylum seekers. Possession of a UNHCR refugee certificate does not protect refugees from detention.

More than 100,000 Sri Lankan Tamils live in between 115 and 130 refugee camps in Tamil Nadu State in India. Aid workers say that some refugees live in thatched huts, others in small cement blockhouses. There are no proper toilet facilities, bathing facilities or adequate drinking water. There is no rubbish collection, and only some camps have medical facilities. Electricity is provided in some locations, but usually only between 6 am and 6 pm. In some camps there is no electricity for many inmates. Six houses at Thiruvadhavur collapsed in monsoonal rains recently, killing a girl.

The camps are of two types: general camps and so-called special camps — which Indian NGOs say are really concentration camps. People can go out of the general camps, but require three levels of police clearance. They are subject to constant surveillance by security forces and face travel restrictions. NGOs are generally barred from working in the refugee camps. Even UNHCR officials are not permitted access.

An Amnesty International investigation