The lives of Sri Lankan Tamil refugees are still at risk



Sri Lankan Tamil family Priya and Nades, and their daughters Kopika and Tharunicaa, are known to most Australians as the Biloela family. They have been incarcerated in onshore and now Christmas Island detention centres. In the Geelong region and elsewhere in Victoria, further appeals by Sri Lankan Tamils to Courts have been rejected, and some now face deportation back to Sri Lanka in December and January. This action taken by Home Affairs comes despite further warnings by the United Nations of the dangers faced by those being returned.

 Protestors holding placards in support of the Tamil asylum seeking family on September 18, 2019 ( Asanka Ratnayake/Getty Images)

However, there is little understanding of what may await the Biloela family and those like them if the Department of Home Affairs is successful in having them deported to Sri Lanka.

Earlier this year, Gotabaya Rajapaksa was re-elected President of Sri Lanka. His brother Mahinda also remains as Prime Minister. The Rajapaksa brothers’ re-election result comes despite their ‘Campaign of Fear’, according to Human Rights Watch, where opposition lawyers, activists, and journalists were targeted. This political thuggery included earmarked arrests, intimidation and threats. Alarmingly, Gotabaya’s other brother and two nephews have also been appointed as Ministers in his government. The Rajapaksa family have increased the military presence in the Tamil regions to the North and North East of Sri Lanka, and a recent amendment to the country's constitution gives unprecedented power to the President to continue the persecution of Tamils.

Persecution of the Tamil population, people mainly residing in the north and east, has continued since this minority group sought independence as a separate State. Violent anti-Tamil racial riots occurred over four decades. A ceasefire was signed in February 2002, but worse was yet to follow.

In 2009 Gotabaya Rajapaksa and his brother Mahinda played a major role in the oversight of Sri Lankan government armed forces killing thousands of men, women and children on the beach at Mullivaikal in the north-east. It is reported that by mid-May 2009, tens of thousands of bodies littered Mullivaikal and the area to its north-west. Many surviving Tamil rebels were tortured, mutilated and executed.

The continued persecution of Tamils has led to many fleeing Sri Lanka over the past ten years, with some landing on Australia’s shores — they have literally fled for their lives. At the beginning of August this year, 2,102 Sri Lankan Tamil refugees in Australia had been recognised as UN convention refugees and granted Temporary Protection Visas. A further 962 were still awaiting their application interviews or results. We are aware of many more Sri Lankan Tamil refugees and asylum seekers in the Home Affairs system, and anecdotally, the disproportionate number of rejections. However, actual figures of this nature are not readily available from the Department.


'We have been told these facts, we have read the human rights reports, we have listened to the United Nations. The Australian government has this information, but continues to refuse to save lives.'


Those forcibly deported back to Sri Lanka have faced a resumption of persecution immediately upon their return. A Tamil refugee who escaped some years ago reported ‘…when a refugee is returned by Home Affairs to Sri Lanka, a representative of the International Organisation for Migration (IOM) meets the returned person at Colombo airport. Sri Lanka’s Criminal Investigation Department (CID) then takes the person into custody and asks questions because the original departure from Sri Lanka was illegal. Out of fear the person will not want to tell the CID the real reason for leaving as this will impact on the person and his/her family. A bribe might help. The person may be bailed and then face ongoing court visits to report. However, you may not be bailed, but punished brutally, especially if your name is within their system — for being a freedom fighter in the past or working as a social activist for the Tamil people. Your file might still be there.’

The Australian Government continues to deport Tamil refugees, despite the warnings of advocates, reputable refugee organisations and consecutive United Nations rapporteurs on human rights. Independent lawyers who are appointed by the United Nations, the special rapporteurs cited the process of the Sri Lankan Government Armed Forces or police in arbitrarily holding, interrogating and regularly torturing returned Tamil refugees.

The Australian government’s response to this inhumane treatment of refugees returned to Sri Lanka has been to praise the Sri Lankan government’s efforts to thwart any asylum seeker attempt to leave Sri Lanka. Former Prime Minister Tony Abbott ‘donated’ two old Australian war ships to the Sri Lankan navy for this purpose.

We have been told these facts, we have read the human rights reports, we have listened to the United Nations. The Australian government has this information, but continues to refuse to save lives.

Sri Lanka is described by many as ‘Teardrop Island’. No doubt this refers to the shape of Sri Lanka, and adds a romantic touch to the popular tourist destination. Sri Lanka will continue to be called ‘Teardrop Island’, not because of its shape, but rather as an indication of the immense grief caused by decades of persecution and genocide of a minority group — the Sri Lankan Tamils.




Peter Coghlan is the co-convenor of the Combined Refugee Action Group.

Main image: Protestors holding placards in support of the Tamil asylum seeking family on September 18, 2019 (Asanka Ratnayake/Getty Images)

Topic tags: Peter Coghlan, Tamil, Sri Lanka, Australia, refugee, asylum seeker, Biloela family



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Existing comments

Australians should be sceptical of claims of widespread, continuing persecution in Sri Lanka made by a fairly sophisticated political movement in Australia that continues to ignore the vast changes that have been wrought across Sri Lanka since the end of conflict. These groups are quick to villify and distort Tamil refugee experience in India, for example. [Many of the Tamils referred to are long standing Indian residents. The UNHCR has encouraged, and organised, returns to Sri Lanka since 2014. Why is the UNHCR encouraging return if it is dangerous?] These groups also distort the Tamil experience in Sri Lanka now. The complete writing out in accounts of perhaps the world’s most successful diasporas in motivation for leaving Sri Lanka. [Over 3,000,000 Sri Lankans live outside Sri Lanka.] Reports such as this one often fail to show the vast efforts at reconciliation across communities in Sri Lanka. There are reports that point to some persecution, harrassment and torture. However, they do not show a link to higher levels of government. [Nor do they mirror the widespread nature of persecution and treatment of earlier times.] One report describes them as “heritage,” often directed at families of LTTE and returning exiles. Recognition of refugee status for Tamils is less in Australia than earlier. However, current "in country" reports regard any new information. Current reviews are that every case must be investigated but we can’t assume that every Tamil is entitled to a humanitarian visa. And that’s as it should be.
John | 27 November 2020

"However, there is little understanding of what may await the Biloela family and those like them if the Department of Home Affairs is successful in having them deported to Sri Lanka." Generally frustrated by the discussion surrounding this case. I think there is an argument for them to stay. Absolutely against their detention. But those who struggle for a policy on asylum and resettlement - one that suits the times and the complexity faced - face arguments that ignore the complexity of the assessments involved [the Biloelas are the most reviewed and assessed case, I would argue, in the world - there is absolutely no evidence they would face persecution.] Face arguments that omit information and create false emphasis [the UNHCR largely supports the return of refugees to Sri Lanka, with provisos; indeed, have organised returns since 2014]. Sri Lanka evolved and much work done on reconciliation. [Critical reports need deeper contextualization.] Australia's policy is to return those who have not been assessed as needing protection. Cases are reviewed individually. There is no blanket need for protection of Tamils. Many in Australia still opposed completely to any returns. It weakens support for asylum and refugees, generally. What are the needs? Safety? Rescue? Asylum? Protection? Evaluation? Return or resettlement?
John | 27 November 2020

In response to John's comments, the UN is not encouraging Tamils to return to Sri Lanka. Quite the contrary. The UN Special Rapporteur on Human Rights, Ben Emmerson said that torture is “routine and endemic” against people held under the deeply-flawed Prevention of Terrorism Act. After his most recent visit he stated that “The Tamil community has borne the brunt of the State’s well-oiled torture apparatus, as the law is used disproportionately against them." and went on to say that “The use of torture is deeply ingrained in the security sector. I heard deeply disturbing, first-hand accounts of brutal torture." (
Linda | 07 December 2020

In February this year, the OHCHR included the following in its report: 'However, reports of harassment or surveillance of human rights defenders and victims of human rights violations increased during 2019. In particular, starting from October 2019, more than a dozen organizations working on documentation or litigation around accountability and disappearance issues have reported being visited by agents claiming to belong to security agencies and requesting administrative details of the organizations, including lists of staff, funding sources and external travel. Some of the relatives of victims of disappearance who took part in organized protests in 2019 were asked to report to police stations for further questioning. Such visits, which began before the presidential election and have since continued, have been documented in different parts of the country, generating considerable fear and anxiety. Several journalists were summoned by the Criminal Investigation Department, arrested and detained or had their offices searched; others have received threats. In some cases, Sri Lankans who travelled to Geneva to attend sessions of the Human Rights Council were questioned about the motives of their trips, either at the airport or during visits by the police to their homes upon their return (see A/HRC/42/30).'
Linda | 07 December 2020

And this: 'Very little action has been taken to remove individuals responsible for past violations, to dismantle structures and practices that have facilitated torture, enforced disappearance and extrajudicial killings, and to prevent their recurrence. The High Commissioner is deeply concerned about the appointment of several military officers to senior command positions, both before and after the presidential elections, despite the serious allegations that troops under their command had committed gross violations of international human rights and humanitarian law during the war, as documented by the Secretary-General’s Panel of Experts on Accountability in Sri Lanka and by OHCHR during its investigation on Sri Lanka.'
Linda | 07 December 2020

In response to Linda's comments, the UNHCR continues to organise refugee returns from India. The last returning mass return was in March 2019. [Here is the UNHCR press release.] Covid has interrupted the voluntary returns. Knowledge of the use of torture in Sri Lanka has been known prior to the UN Rapporteur report. The 2018 DFAT "in country" report states: The International Truth and Justice Project (ITJP) cited 24 cases of torture in 2016 and 2017. An Associated Press article published in November 2017 claimed 52 incidents of torture, which included the cases reported by the ITJP. … However, DFAT is unable to verify allegations of torture in 2016 and 2017." UN Rapporteur Ben Emerson met representatives from across government and society in Sri Lanka and he said “The Government has committed itself to ending the culture of impunity, ensuring accountability, peace and justice, achieving lasting reconciliation and preventing further human rights abuses. These steps were set out in a Human Rights Council resolution." The real dispute here is, the writer does not accept the notion of return for failed asylum seekers per se. What should happen to those who fail to be recognised as needing protection?
John | 12 December 2020

It is interesting that there have only been two commentators so far on this excellent article. The situation of Tamil refugees is just one of the horror scenes of contemporary Sri Lanka. The country could be a multiethnic and multireligious island paradise. It was when it achieved independence. The present ruling family is destroying every good thing about the place.
Edward Fido | 21 December 2020

Edward, hard to reconcile that comment with a variety of reports about Sri Lanka. Perhaps a read of the World Bank report might shed some light? The report shows the dividends of peace with growing education levels, improving economy, a diversifying economy, improvement in health etc. For example, extreme poverty is being rapidly eliminated. Or read the report from the Special Rapporteur that Linda has quoted. The report reflects the co-operation between the UN and Sri Lanka to move beyond its recent violent past. The special rapporteur visited with the co-operation and assistance of the Sri Lankan government. An ongoing process of review and reflection. Yes, there are issues of concern. That's the aim of the ongoing report - to draw attention of the government to issues of concern that risk returning Sri Lanka to its violent recent history. The writer claims Australia's "in country" report on Sri Lanka has failed and we are sending refugees home to face torture. Yet the points made, regarding torture, are included in the "in country" report. Yes, some recent terror attacks have heightened tensions. But Sri Lanka is a country in transition. Much evidence of a nation moving forward.
John | 22 December 2020

I think many of us are concerned about what Sri Lanka is transiting towards, John.
Edward Fido | 19 January 2021

My interest, Edward, is in evidence based discussion. So much discussion selectively uses quotes. Does not provide full context. Dated reports. Seems to have little understanding of the process involved in the evaluation of claims for asylum by applicants. For example, some of those being returned to their homes are being sent home to India. Some are young men, from families who fled Sri Lanka from the late 1970's onwards, who, sometimes, have not set foot in Sri Lanka. How are they warranted protection? The special rapporteurs report indicated in the comments section actually highlights the positive trends in developments. Sri Lanka is working with the UN to review developments. To monitor progress. Has made significant commitments to embrace a new future. Has made vast efforts at reconciliation. Instead, discussion seems to be rooted in simplistic, dated and emotive claims. Little balance, complexity or depth is presented. For a complete and comprehensive analysis of Sri Lanka - political developments, economic progress [it truly is one of the fastest growing economies in the world], health, human rights status etc, try reading the DFAT "in country" Sri Lanka report. Drawn from a vast variety of sources. Facts, Edward. Here it is.
John | 20 January 2021


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