The father of a three-year-old girl who is among the 153 asylum seekers currently detained on an Australian customs vessel has expressed relief that his daughter is temporarily safe, but warned that deporting the asylum seekers back to Sri Lanka would put their lives in jeopardy.
Known as ‘Suresh’, the man’s daughter Febrina became the face of those on board the then missing asylum seeker boat after an image of her wearing a blue fairy tutu was shared widely on social media.
Until the existence of the boat was officially confirmed in the High Court on Wednesday, Suresh was unsure whether his daughter and other family on board were safe.
“I’m very happy to know my wife and daughter, and everyone else, are safe at the moment. It’s good news at last to know where they are. I thank the Australian people who went to the court for them,” Suresh told the Tamil Refugee Council.
Trevor Grant, a spokesperson for the Tamil Refugee Council, told New Matilda that Suresh was still unable to connect with his family.
“He’s desperate and he’s told us several times all he wants to know is are his family safe. He hasn’t heard from them for over 10 days,” Grant said.
During Wednesday’s High Court proceedings, the Commonwealth gave an undertaking not to send the asylum seekers back to Sri Lanka without 48 hours notice, ensuring they would not meet the same fate as the 41 who were processed at sea and returned to their country of origin days earlier (all of the 41 have been arrested).
In conversations with Grant, Suresh said his wife and her family had been living in refugee camps in India since the 1990s.
“One thing people tend to forget is the persecution [asylum seekers]suffer in Indian refugee camps,” Grant said.
He told New Matilda that refugees were barred from leaving such camps but had virtually no chance of being settled in India, which is not a signatory to the United Nations Refugee Convention.
The boat carrying Suresh’s family departed from Pondicherry, in India’s south east, on June 13.
There have since been indications that the asylum seekers who fled will not be welcomed back.
Grant said that Suresh, who now lives in Europe, had himself been tortured by the Sri Lankan government during the country’s civil war, and separated from his family in India three years ago.
Suresh said he had his thumbs tied together and was hung from a roof for up to six hours at a time while interned on the infamous fourth floor of Colombo’s Criminal Investigation Department.
He said he personally knew that several of the 153 people now being held by Australian customs had also been tortured.
Through the Tamil Refugee Council, Suresh offered a plea to Immigration Minister Scott Morrison.
“I’m still very concerned about their welfare, though. I want to know if my little daughter, my wife and other relatives, are still healthy and in good care. I’m desperate to talk to them. I’m waiting every day for a phone call,” he said.
“Surely it’s not too much to allow the family and relatives, very very worried relatives, to have their fears put to rest by letting them talk to their families on the boat,” Grant said.
Appearing last night on the ABC’s 7:30, Suresh said returning the asylum seekers to Sri Lanka was not an option.
“If they return them to Sri Lanka, my whole family will be wiped out,” he said.
The fate of his family, and of the other asylum seekers, is now in the hands of the High Court. A full sitting of the Court will hear their case in the coming weeks.
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