For newly arrived Christmas Island asylum seekers, many of whom have endured life threatening journeys, the dreaded prospect of drowning on the high seas was nothing compared to the pre-dawn knock on the door of their room, with barked orders from a guard to “get ready”.
According to *Shalini, an English-speaking Tamil asylum seeker who phoned me from Christmas Island on Wednesday evening, it has happened to three families in detention there this week, all of whom claim to have fled the country because of torture and intimidation from the Sri Lankan military.
“The guards come at 5am and tell you to pack up. They stand at the door and watch you, not letting you speak to anyone or say goodbye to friends. They then take you away, to prepare for deportation,” she said.
The Tamil Refugee Council (TRC) learned yesterday that one of these families — a man, his wife and two children — has been brought back to a different camp on the island after legal intervention. “I passed their names to a lawyer and things suddenly changed,” said TRC spokesperson, Aran Mylvaganam.
“No-one has any idea where the other two families have gone. They might be waiting for deportation somewhere. They could have already been deported. Nobody knows. This is a very secretive operation.”
As asylum seekers continue to come to Australia in increasing numbers, the Federal Government’s reaction has been to send many more back to where they came from; often, according to lawyers and refugee advocates, with very brief interviews and no proper access to legal assistance.
These advocates describe this “screening out” process, and the failure to explain to asylum seekers their rights, especially about access to lawyers, as a breach of the UN Refugee Convention. They say that many of these people are being deported to danger. The government claims it is abiding by its obligations, and no more.
According to an Immigration Department press release, published Wednesday, 1206 asylum seekers from Sri Lanka have been sent back home this year — 994 of them involuntarily.
Recent department figures also show that more than 90 per cent of arrivals by boat were assessed to be genuine in their claims for refugee status. This casts doubt on claims from both major parties that most asylum seekers are “economic migrants”.
It also explains why the Federal Government's much-trumpeted policy of deterrence has failed to stem the flow of boats. As advocates say, terrorised people will always opt for a leaky boat over a torture chamber or jail cell.
Mylvaganam said he had been in touch with relatives of one family — a husband, wife and two children — sent back from Christmas Island two weeks ago. “The Sri Lankan authorities have permitted the children to live with their relatives. But the parents have been in jail for the past two weeks. They have been accused of links with the Tamil Tigers. I know their lives are in danger now,” he said.
This week Mylvaganam spoke to several asylum seekers on Christmas Island, who rang him to express their fears about deportation and ask for assistance. They say they arrived there on 1 May on a boat from Indonesia, containing 40 Iranians and 145 Tamils. What follows are their personal accounts, as told to, and translated by, Mylvaganam.
Karan, 27, said he had previously worked for the Tamil Rehabilitation Organisation for 18 months and received training with the Tamil Tigers for six months. He said he left Sri Lanka because of continuous harassment and torture by the military.
“I fear I will be sent back because they have sent back so many others here. They have already threatened that we will probably be deported,” he said. “If this happens I know Sri Lankan intelligence will torture me. They have tortured me before. That’s why I escaped. They’ll punish me more for leaving the country.”
Pari, 25, comes from Jaffna. His wife’s brother is a refugee now living in the community. “If I go back I will not be alive. They’ll kill me,” he said. “I lived in Vanni until 16 May 2009. My uncle, brother and another brother-in-law are all missing. I have been arrested many times on suspicion of being in the Tigers. I can’t live there in peace because of my age. The Sri Lankan Government is suspicious of me because of my age. But because it’s single men they focus on, and I’m married, I managed to escape.”
Pari said Australian immigration officials interviewed him for 10 minutes, asking him four questions: Why did you come to Australia? Where did you come from? Why do you fear for your life if you are returned back? Do you know anyone in Australia?
“I wasn’t given an opportunity to prove that I am a genuine refugee,” he said “At the start of the interview immigration officials advised me that if I failed it, I would need to cooperate with whatever decision they make. They made me sign a paper without reading out the contents to me.”
Durga is a widowed grandmother in her late 40s from Trincomalee, an area where the Tamil Tigers enjoyed strong support. Her three daughters and her nine-year-old grandson are with her. She said her husband was in the Tamil Tigers before they were married more than 20 years ago but he was not involved in combat after marriage.
“He was taken away in a white van in 1997 and is on the missing list,” she said, adding that she was accused of organising remembrance events for Tamil Tiger war dead and has been harassed by Sri Lankan military officers.
“Last year, around October, the army took two of my daughters into custody for 24 hours and sexually assaulted them. When they came another time I told my daughters to hide. They took me instead. They slapped me and beat me but they didn’t do any sexual torture. They just talked sexually to me.”
“I’m very scared about my daughters’ lives if they are sent back to Sri Lanka. I have seen many people being sent back whose lives are at risk. I don’t trust the Australian Government. It seems to me they are randomly sending people back without checking their background.”
Immigration Minister Brendan O’Connor has denied several times this year that asylum seekers with genuine claims for protection were being deported. “We must ensure that when we dedicate resources to provide places for people fleeing persecution that those places must be filled with people who are genuinely fleeing persecution,” he told Fairfax media last month.
*The names in this story have been changed to protect identities.