Forty-one Sri Lankan citizens returned to their country after being denied entry into Australia. The asylum-seekers were handed over to the Sri Lankan navy without a thorough investigation by Australian authorities. They face charges when they return to their home country.
The returned citizens face a charge of illegally leaving the country. Their sentence will include “rigorous imprisonment,” along with a fine. Although the civil war ended in 2009, human rights violations that existed during the conflict continue; imprisonment in Sri Lanka is still sometimes inhumane. There have been 75 documented cases of torture since the end of the war, according to Human Rights Watch. This includes instances of rape of both men and women. Very few of these human rights abuses are punished.
The Australian Prime Minister, Tony Abbott, has adopted a policy of limiting refugees who enter the country, which is a popular destination for asylum seekers. This has led to a shoddy screening process for the 90 percent of Sri Lankans who attempt to enter Australia. Many boats are turned around on their way to Australia, and dozens of people have drowned because of boats capsizing.
While it is legal to return citizens when they are thoroughly screened and found to not need protection, this was not done. A hasty analysis was performed while still on the water, and no investigation was performed to determine whether the 41 Sri Lankans were in need of asylum. The U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees commented that Australia has a previous record of illegal screening practices for asylum-seekers.
Two boats were intercepted 12 miles from Australia. While the 41 were handed over, another 153 are still waiting on the sea to learn their fate. The first departed directly from Sri Lanka, while the other originated from the south Indian coast, from Pondicherry. They have been moved to an Australian navy ship. Although first denied, the Australian government has finally acknowledged this second ship’s existence.
Among these people trapped in limbo, 37 are children. Most of those seeking asylum in Australia are minority Tamils, who still face persecution despite the end of the conflict in their home country.
The 153 are awaiting a decision from an injunction called for by the Australian High Court. Numerous legal experts in Australia have commented on the human rights violations by their country. The decision to return the 41 Sri Lankans, and the potential return of the other 153, violate international law and the refugee convention.
The Prime Minister promised not to return the 153 without 72 hours’ notice, and a court hearing on Tuesday will determine what will happen to those still on the water.
Government lawyers have claimed those on board have no right to seek asylum because the ship was stopped outside of Australia’s immigration zone. It is possible the refugees will be sent to Papua New Guinea for further processing.
People on board have reached out to journalists and refugee advocates through satellite phones to advocate for their cause. Their families are also expressing concern for their safe arrival. One man stated through an interpreter, “I am desperate to know where my family is. I can’t function at all not knowing. I know all of them would be in very big trouble if sent back to Sri Lanka.”
– Monica Roth