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The problems with recognising Sri Lankan boat arrivals as refugees

It is all pretty confusing. Are Sri Lankan boat arrivals – like the 66 who showed up in the port of Geraldton last month – actually refugees? Are they fleeing from a country where the police and the army…

Unauthorised boat arrivals from Sri Lanka continue. Recent reports into widespread human rights abuses in Sri Lanka suggest the arrivals might be genuine refugees. EPA/Stringer

It is all pretty confusing. Are Sri Lankan boat arrivals – like the 66 who showed up in the port of Geraldton last month – actually refugees?

Are they fleeing from a country where the police and the army torture and rape citizens, where the media is not permitted to report about what is going on, and where there is no chance of getting redress for any of this, because the judges are biased, and the lawyers are in jail?

Or are these boat arrivals mere “economic” refugees, with secure (if uncomfortable) lives in their own home country?

There is an easily discernible quid pro quo operating here. Australia refrains from seriously criticising the government of Sri Lanka for abuses of power, human rights violations and the failure to fully investigate war crimes committed during the years of conflict. For its part, Sri Lanka’s government does everything in its power to stop Sri Lankans setting sail for Australia.

What threatens to disrupt the quid pro quo and shatter the narrative of Sri Lankan boat arrivals as mere queue-jumping, economically-motivated unauthorised immigrants, is the release of a steady flow of credible, well-researched reports about what is actually going on in Sri Lanka.

The Amnesty International report - Assault on Dissent - published on April 30, is merely the latest of these. The Amnesty report, which details the violent measures taken by the Sri Lankan government to silence its critics, follows a report by the International Crisis Group in February, written after the impeachment of Sri Lanka’s chief justice.

It is quite easy to see why the Australian government doesn’t want these people to be refugees. Sri Lankans constitute the largest proportion of our unauthorised boat arrivals. The Australian government’s ability to send these arrivals straight back to where they came from – or to make their lives miserable while they are here in detention - is helpful (especially in an election year) in propping up a rhetoric of border security, of being tough on illegal immigrants, of catching the queue-jumpers, of stopping the people smugglers.

The Australian government’s idea that there is a deterrent effect to being tough on boat arrivals only really makes sense if those trying to leave are not “real” (in fear of their lives) refugees.

Foreign minister Bob Carr continues to maintain that “it’s wrong to say Tamils live in fear and are fleeing their country”. In this regard, the Sri Lankan government sees eye-to-eye with the Australian government. After the Geraldton debacle, the Sri Lankan High Commissioner to Australia was asked to explain why, if Sri Lanka was so peaceful and safe, Sri Lankan Tamils were leaving Sri Lanka in such large numbers? The High Commissioner’s answer was that they were leaving to pursue economic opportunities; they were coming to Australia for a better life.

Two other credible reports into human rights abuses in Sri Lanka were also released in February. One by Human Rights Watch set out detailed cases of the Sri Lankan authorities use of rape and sexual violence as a means of torture; while the report of the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights to the Human Rights Council noted the “continuing reports of extrajudicial killings, abductions and enforced disappearance in the past year".

An editorial published in The Australian after the arrival of the Sri Lankans in Geraldton asked: “what about real refugees?” In the wake of the recent string of reports, it is becoming harder to jump to the conclusion that those journeying from Sri Lanka are motivated by economic gain – or, in the words of The Australian editorial, merely “discontented”, rather than “desperate".

You can see at once the tricky position that the Australian government is in in relation to the Commonwealth Heads of Government Meeting (CHOGM) meeting, scheduled to be held in Sri Lanka in November. Canada has announced that it will boycott the meeting on the basis of reports of the Sri Lankan government’s human rights abuses, and the government’s failure to investigate war crimes.

Foreign minister Bob Carr is yet to concede that the Sri Lankan arrivals by boat are genuine refugees. AAP/Dean Lewins

Canada has urged other Commonwealth governments to do the same, and if the Commonwealth still stands for anything at all, it stands as a political forum where countries uphold principles concerning the liberty of the individual and the equal right of all citizens to freely participate in the society in which they live.

The reports mentioned above all document the different ways in which Sri Lanka’s government is failing to meet its most basic obligations to its citizens. Yet how can the Australian government boycott the meeting? To boycott would mean acknowledging the brutal and oppressive conditions that Sri Lankans – especially Tamils – are fleeing from.

It would be tantamount to admitting that there was at least a prima facie case that people fleeing were refugees. It would mean an end to peremptory deportation. And it might very well mean more boats arriving on Australian shores.

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30 Comments sorted by

  1. Danderson

    logged in via Twitter

    Do they only mistreat men?

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    1. Luke Barrett

      Ecologist

      In reply to Danderson

      I guess it could be a boatload of men coming here to earn money and send it home (economic migrants), or it could be boatload of men coming to here to earn money to bring their families over later (potentially genuine refugees). Hard to know without detailed information, but it's a good question.

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    2. Barry White

      Retired

      In reply to Danderson

      Does all this mean we have to accept everyone who comes from a country where the police & government act illegally ?
      The police will say they are innocent as will the government.
      So it becomes open slather, everyone gets let in just on their say so !

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    3. Marilyn Shepherd

      pensioner

      In reply to Barry White

      No, they have to have a well founded fear of persecution and as 80% of those Sri Lankans who apply here have that fear then they are allowed to come here.

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    4. Marilyn Shepherd

      pensioner

      In reply to Danderson

      No, they are currently raping women as a means to get to the men, the kids cannot go to school and so on.

      Instead of bleating out the usual ignorance go and do some research.

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    5. John C Smith

      Auditor

      In reply to Danderson

      Only way to treat them is to send them back to India. There are definitely people who earn working on more popular human rights issues of the human rights of 40 million refugees world wide. If India does not accept them the the can be bartered with refugees in UNHCR refugee camps. I am sure Navanathan Pillai the UNHCR will endorese. these are some comments to address issues raised by authors and commentators.1. In Canada some commentators and his own party members are calling Mr Stephen Harper…

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    6. Dasha Somaratna

      logged in via Facebook

      In reply to Marilyn Shepherd

      I wonder where Miss Marilyn Shepherd gets her facts from as she asks others to go and do their own research. India has a large Tamil population and the state of Tamil Nadu is about 20 miles away by boat. The people speak the same language and are culturally the same. If they were genuine refugees entire families would be fleeing across the border in boats and the Indian government has been open to refugees.

      Instead we have a steady stream of Tamil men leaving the country. Tamil almost 100% male…

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  2. Felix MacNeill

    Environmental Manager

    Thanks Catherine - a calm and well-balanced article and a useful contribution to better understanding of the issue.

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  3. Leigh Burrell

    Trophy hunter

    If India recognises human rights violations in Sri Lanka why don't these illegals seek asylum there? From the UNHCR:

    "India, for instance, continues to grant asylum and provide direct assistance to some 200,000 refugees from neighbouring States. In the absence of a national legal framework for asylum, UNHCR undertakes refugee status determination (RSD) and assists nearly 22,000 urban refugees and asylum-seekers. A positive development was seen in 2012, when the Government agreed to issue long-term visas to eligible mandate refugees and a specific asylum-seeker group."

    http://www.unhcr.org/cgi-bin/texis/vtx/page?page=49e4876d6&submit=GO

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    1. Leigh Burrell

      Trophy hunter

      In reply to Marilyn Shepherd

      Michael Zwack - UNHCR:

      "Throughout the world we don't have many situations where a solution has been found and people can either return to their home or settle where they are. Fortunately, Sri Lanka is one country where there's no more conflict. People ARE able to return voluntarily in safety and in dignity"

      http://unhcr.org/v-4eeb1c796

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    2. Leigh Burrell

      Trophy hunter

      In reply to Marilyn Shepherd

      They were given asylum in India. Then they went home because its safe to do so.

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    3. Steve Hindle

      logged in via email @bigpond.com

      In reply to Leigh Burrell

      This UNHCR video is a good find Leigh.
      I wonder why the author of this article does not use the UNHCR as a source? I think it is a more credible source than the ones used. It is fairly strong evidence that many asylum seekers from Sri Lanka are coming here for economic reasons.

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  4. Greg North

    Retired Engineer

    Aside from the guy at the front of the queue looking to be of a reasonable disposition given the profile of a face with a smile, not to mention well representing his barber and then seemingly four guys sporting the same Tshirt, and one with a nest looking carry all the question behind recognising Tamil Tigers as refugees is indeed a vexed one in political terms for the Gillard government.

    The history behind the violence in Sri Lanka is militant Tamils having taken up violence against the ruling…

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    1. Marilyn Shepherd

      pensioner

      In reply to Greg North

      We have a legal obligation to hear their claims first but as there are tens of thousands of so-called economic migrants from safe countries here who are not arbitrarily deported and treated like criminals there is no point in painting Sri Lankans as terrorists and killers.

      And so why do you believe all the idiotic reports in our media about getting paid when you get here? That is a mindless furphy rambled out by the DIAC mob since time immemorial.

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  5. Robert Fernando

    Engineer

    The following is from NEWS.LK published on the 30-Apr-2013 -
    "According to GoSL sources, of the 928 Sri Lankans deported since February last year up to April this year, 201 were Tamils, 23 Muslims and 704 Sinhalese. Sources said that most of the deportations had been carried out involuntarily, amidst objections by various NGOs and civil society groups."
    Readers please note the above publication has some link to Sri Lankan government & the number of Sinhalese deported was 704. Can some journalist confirm the above statistics please.

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  6. Dasha Somaratna

    logged in via Facebook

    I wonder where Miss Marilyn Shepherd gets her facts from as she asks others to go and do their own research. India has a large Tamil population and the state of Tamil Nadu is about 20 miles away by boat. The people speak the same language and are culturally the same. If they were genuine refugees entire families would be fleeing across the border in boats and the Indian government has been open to refugees.

    Instead we have a steady stream of Tamil men leaving the country. Tamil almost 100…

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    1. Paddy Mohan

      studying Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Advocacy

      In reply to Dasha Somaratna

      "majority of these people are economic refugees"
      - and we are to believe that you are not a economic refugee? The line between economic refugees and economic migrants gets blurred when it comes to people from the Indian subcontinent.
      If anyone notices the link between skilled migration and international students, it becomes very clear that almost every single Indian, Sri Lankan and other international students from the Indian subcontinent applies for permanent residency or some kind of temporary visa after their studies as a means of staying back in Australia. When other international students from Europe are only doing exchange studies here (1 or 2 semesters) and going back to Europe, what is the desperation for Sri Lankan and Indian students to settle in Australia? Its all about $$$, money aye, money!

      And you talk about economic refugees?

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    2. Dasha Somaratna

      logged in via Facebook

      In reply to Paddy Mohan

      What' your point Mr Mohan? Are you asking me if I am an economic refugee? I was born in Europe and am a US citizen serving in the US army. What is the problem with international students who have a skill choosing to remain in Australia, or any other developed country for that matter if those skills are needed in that country? That's different than a bunch of people washing up on Australia's shores, to take instead of contribute, pretending to be something they are not. You are comparing apples and oranges here. No actually you are comparing apples and potatoes, but you probably don't get the difference.

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  7. NY Nathan

    logged in via Twitter

    Lets SALUTE Mr.Harper for his HUMANITY by not going to the SIN-HELla VIRTUAL RACIST Srilankan state for the Commonwealth mee,ting, The Commonwealth - Canda Indian PM Mr.Nehru and Britain - did isolate the APARTHEID South Africa ( ONLY THE SIN-HELLa RACIST SRILANKA SENT THERI CRICKET TEAM TO SOUTH AFRICAN APARTHEID REGIME DESPITE COMMONWEALTH BOYCOTT)and won the peace.
    By rewarding the VIRTUAL RACIST SIN-HELLa fundamentalist state even after Genocide in 2009, still ongoing Genocide of remaining Tamils, also resumed atrocities against Muslims and also atrocities against Christians, the Commonwealth actually REWARDING THE RACIST SRILANKA for the GENOCIDE.

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  8. NY Nathan

    logged in via Twitter

    Why Srilanka is an EXCEPTION for Boycott by the Commonwealth let laone by the world?????????????
    Commonwealth did suspend South Africa for racism against Blacks, Pakistan for just Military coups, few times Fiji due to Military coups against Indian origin president but why not SRILANKA????? even after the Srilanka carried out GENOCIDE in 21st Century and still continuing with STRUCTURAL Genocide of North and East - Tamil areas while total SINHALISATION or ETHNIC CLEANSING of Tamil areas to make Tamils as MINORITIES in their OWN AREAS. Also the Srilankan so called security forces are being just spectators and or aiding and abetting resumed atrocities against other faiths Muslims and Christians while so many jouranalists are being killed,intimidated and abducted. Even Srilankan supreme court JUDGE also was a victim of the SIN-HELLa fundamentalist Srilankan regome but Britain and India mainly still aiding and abetting the Srilanka.

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  9. Chamil Peiris

    logged in via email @hotmail.com

    Another point to ponder is, if you are fleeing persecution and feel that your life is in jeopardy would you risk everything, pay a huge sum and attempt to come to Australia or flee to the nearest safe haven? Surely India would be a more practical, culturally similar and easier destination to reach? Or maybe Indonesia? Why is Australia the main destination?

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  10. wilma western

    logged in via email @bigpond.com

    Article is merely an assertion that because the whole asylum-seeker issue is a problem for govt and Opposition, they're shutting their eyes to genuine refugee issues in Sri Lanka. No evidence cited , no explanation of why a considerable number returned voluntarily, or why significany numbers of Sinhalese were included in the Sri Lankan boat arrivals.

    Not up to standard.

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  11. Robina Santhiapillai

    Civil Engineer at Central Engineering Consultancy Bureau

    Thank you Catherine, when this photo was taken.i have been searching my elder brother for 3 1/2 years (from 2009), actually he has gone to australia from india by ship. In your article shows my brother clearly who is in 7th place (3 rd one hiding his face) behind green half trouser. i want to take him back, he also a civil engineer studied at Anna University in India. please if possible send some details about that above article photo.

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  12. Ziyan Junaideen

    logged in via Facebook

    Very logical... Should have been an engineer... but again, your country needs smart people to handle law.... or it will be another Sri Lanka.

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  13. John Marsden

    Self Employed

    Hi Catherine,

    I see so many articles similar to you talking about human rights violations in Sri Lanka by the government and police etc.. I'm not sure if you have actually gone to Sri Lanka and seen the situation your self or just borrowing from someone else because you are so naive to not know that Amnesty International, Red Cross and quite a few NGO's actually been infiltrated by LTTE.

    It's really frustrating to see that people who never cared when the country was in civil war for 30 years…

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