Australia's Wilful Blindness On Sri Lanka

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"Enhanced screening" is the latest example of Labor’s attempt to downplay the brutal crimes of the Sri Lankan Rajapakse regime to suit its domestic political agenda. It is also another disgraceful act by the Australian Government in its treatment of asylum seekers.

My office is in contact with some of the asylum seekers who have gone through the enhanced screening process. We have learned that some on Christmas Island have made contact with lawyers in Australia. The Guardian Australia has reported this too. This means that under Section 256 of the Migration Act the Department of Immigration and Citizenship (DIAC) is required to afford all reasonable facilities for them to get legal advice.

However, the allegations outlined in the above article appear to put DIAC's current policy at odds with the Migration Act. If asylum seekers are being denied access to legal advice, for example, not being given the documents sent to them by their lawyers, then the officials making these decisions are in breach of the Migration Act.

The Australian reports today that a confidential DIAC brief says that "as at January 31, 1403 enhanced screening interviews had been done and 67 per cent (947) had been screened out — that is, barred from lodging refugee claims".

UNHCR’s Richard Towle has called the enhanced screening arrangements “unfair and unreliable” and has said it forms part of an “everwidening suite of deterrent measures”.

Reports indicate enhanced screening is being used only for those arriving from Sri Lanka. Instead of putting pressure on Sri Lanka to stop its terror tactics, human rights violations, intimidation and extra judicial killings, Australia flaunts a friendship of cooperation and collaboration.

In February 2013 Foreign Minister Senator Bob Carr told me in Senate Estimates that "since 2010 there has been no evidence of returnees being discriminated against or arrested, let alone tortured".

Since August last year 1035 asylum seekers from Sri Lanka including over 200 Tamils have been sent back involuntarily.

In February 2012 Human Rights Watch released a report detailing the experiences of some Tamil asylum seekers subjected to arbitrary arrest and torture upon their return to Sri Lanka from Britain.

The torture included being beaten with batons, burned with cigarettes, upside down hangings and rape. One Tamil woman said she was arrested at Colombo airport by Sri Lankan officials on her return in April 2010 and was raped by several men many times while in detention. Human Rights Watch has medical evidence supporting these claims.

ABC 730 recently ran a story in which a Tamil asylum seeker "Nathan" said his brother who was subjected to enhanced screening in Australia, was jailed upon his removal to Sri Lanka in December. He was beaten and deprived of food for many days.

In February 2013 Human Rights Watch produced another report titled "We Will Teach You a Lesson: Sexual Violence against Tamils by Sri Lankan Security Forces".

The report details 75 cases of alleged rape and sexual abuse of Tamil detainees that occurred from 2006-2012. Men and women reported being raped multiple times, often by several people, with army, police and pro-government paramilitary personnel frequently participating.

In April 2013 ABC 7.30 ran a story about a Tamil man living in Melbourne who was abducted, raped and tortured by Sri Lankan army intelligence officers when he returned to Sri Lanka for a visit.

My office has been in contact with a Tamil who was imprisoned with other Tamils in Sri Lanka after the war ended in 2009. They were all gangraped over a number of months. DIAC is aware of this case.

How much more evidence does Carr need?

The Australian Federal Police have spent approximately $540,000 to train the Sri Lankan police in the 2012-2013 current financial year. The training courses have included management of investigations, development for individual police officer programs, criminal intelligence analyst training, money laundering investigations training, and "train the trainer" programs.

When I asked the AFP in Senate Estimates if they were aware of the allegation made against the Sri Lankan police of widespread use of torture and rape in detention, I was told "of course the AFP is conscious of those".

Considering Australia is funding Sri Lankan police training, the public would expect our government to hold the Rajapakse regime to account for allegations of deaths in custody, torture and rape by the Sri Lankan police. Being "conscious" is definitely not good enough.

My request for examples of where the AFP has interacted with their counterparts in Sri Lanka to recommend changes to address these ongoing allegations about torture and rape were taken as questions on notice. I may not receive these answers till February 2014.

While these allegations stand, no one who has fled persecution and sought asylum in Australia should be deported or removed back to Sri Lanka, a regime implicated in war crimes and crimes against humanity.

Time and again, the Australian government has shown that human rights in Sri Lanka is not a priority. Only stopping Tamils leaving the country is.

There are mechanisms to let Sri Lanka know that we are not willing to turn a blind eye to the Rajapakse regime’s blatant disregard of human rights and justice . One of these is the upcoming Commonwealth Heads of Government Meeting (CHOGM) that will be held in Sri Lanka this November after which Sri Lankan will assume chair-in-residence of the Commonwealth for two years.

Australia should follow the example of Canada and say if CHOGM goes ahead in Colombo, without an improvement in the human rights situation there, the Prime Minister will not attend.

Unbelievably, Australia will not only participate in CHOGM, it has promised assistance to the Sri Lankan government to host this event.

Enhanced screening must be stopped. It is a process which fails to ensure Australia is not returning refugees to a place where they are at risk of persecution, torture, cruel inhumane or degrading treatment. Australia has clear international obligations under the Convention Against Torture, the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights as well as the Refugee Convention. We need to comply with these obligations for anyone who seeks protection in Australia, including Sri Lankans.

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