Tough talk rings hollow

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I know very little about the situation in Sri Lanka. The plight of its people, has up until now, been all but invisible to me. The complex problems of this small island, resting at the bottom tip of India, have been too complex, too hard to fathom. Like others I’ve read reports of civil war, the recruiting of children into armies and disappearances.

In Australia what do these words mean to us? Very little, I guess, if we can consider sending people back to such a place.

A few weeks ago one of our ChilOut Ambassadors (a Sri Lankan girl) visited Baxter Detention Centre and while there met sixteen Sri Lankan men:
six Tamils, the rest Singhalese. After the visit ChilOut received a note which stated: ‘Thanks for the great thought of visiting the Sri Lankans in Baxter – one of them called me yesterday afternoon saying how really happy it made them.’

That got me thinking. A small act such as a person visiting means so much to these people’s lives.

A few days later, on 15 September, a media release explained that eleven of the sixteen Sri Lankan men had started a peaceful protest at the centre. On that day, 15 September, three years ago, six of these men set foot on Australian soil. Two days later the Howard Government passed laws that excised these islands from Australia’s migration zone.

One of the Sri Lankan men heard about my work with Chilout and wrote to me about their plight. I asked him what was going on and he sent me a letter which he had sent to the Immigration Minister Amanda Vanstone.
In this letter I learned the story of these men and how they came to reach Australia’s shores.

Within days of the arrival of the Sri Lankan men on the Cocos Island three years ago, their statements were taken. Although they feared for their lives they gave statements against the smugglers that had brought them into Australian territory. One of the many ironies of this story is that the smugglers are now free, and the asylum seekers are still in prison.

Thirty-four of the people on their boat were forcibly deported. The rest were told they would be allowed to make applications for refugee status. That was November 2001.

For months they were kept on the island. They were made to work in the quarantine station yard, to cut grass, clean the garden, and erect temporary huts for the forces. They were not provided with any safety shoes, gloves or other protective items. On some days they worked all day without payment. Expired food provided their sustenance, and stretchers meant an uncomfortable sleep.

They were transferred to Christmas Island in January 2002. They were told that under the new migration legislation, which was implemented on
27 September 2001 (after their arrival) they had no right to protection visas. Their claims of refugee status were rejected.

Eight months later they were told that they were now allowed to lodge protection visa applications and in September 2002 they lodged their applications. The immigration department rejected the applications, without a case officer interview. It is now 2004 and the department is threatening their deportation.

This is despite the continued recruitment of child soldiers, political unrest and a civil war which has claimed over 60,000 lives since 1972. An election in Sri Lanka this year meant that the Singhalese Sri Lankan’s opposition party came into power. A note from the Singhalese Sri Lankan detainees in Baxter pleaded with the Minister for Immigration: ‘We are tired and have been in frustration all these years. We thoroughly believe that we are still young people have hope to have happy life. If we live for long in detention like this getting help of all tablets to keep life, we would not have any future. Our whole body will be disabling because every day we are having tablets to sleep, tablets to control anger and frustration. Some more tablets to recover torture in detention and normal sicknesses.’

On 15 September 2004, the other group in Baxter, the Sri Lankan Tamils, wrote to the Minister:’We, Sri Lankan Tamils have been living in war environment in our life until we arrived in Australia and we have not felt or experienced freedom in our whole life both in Sri Lanka and in Australia.’

Young Tamils from the northern regions of Sri Lanka have been the subject of ethnic cleansing over the last few decades. Terrorist organisations forcefully recruit young people into military service to fight wars. Some are forced to provide medical treatment for wounded rebels, to build defensive walls, and to collect tax illegally.

Although peace talks are now in progress this is something all Sri Lankans have seen before. Peace talks in the past have never resolved the conflict nor stopped the disappearances.

Years ago, I read Anil’s Ghost, by Michael Ondaatje, author of The English Patient. In it he describes Sri Lanka, a country torn apart by three groups: the government, the anti-government insurgents in the south and the separatist guerrillas in the north. He describes a continual war, where all reason is lost: ‘The reason for war was war.’

There are still eleven men suffering the cold of the South Australian night in a peaceful protest, and possibly one slowly dying of hunger. How long until anyone takes notice?

I have trouble coming to terms with what is going on in Sri Lanka, but that doesn’t stop me from having compassion for the lives of these people. It doesn’t stop me from understanding that no person, whether they be Sri Lankan, Afghani, or any other nationality, deserves to be stuck in a detention centre for three years. Our government speaks so fervently about opposing terrorism, yet when faced with the result of terrorism-refugees fleeing from it-does little, if nothing, to limit their suffering.

New Matilda

New Matilda is independent journalism at its finest. The site has been publishing intelligent coverage of Australian and international politics, media and culture since 2004.

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