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Asylum policies are extensions of Sri Lanka’s repression

During a recent high profile visit to Colombo, Australian Foreign Minister Bob Carr announced that his country would be pumping millions of dollars into Sri Lanka, as part of a concerted effort to stem the ever rising flow of asylum seekers, comprising almost entirely of Tamils, from the island. Measures included providing surveillance training and equipment for the Sri Lankan Navy and intelligence services. By reducing the ‘problem’ to one of insufficient surveillance and security, these measures ignore the pervasive and deepening conditions of repression that compel increasingly desperate to flee. Furthermore by funding and supporting the Sri Lankan Navy, accused of shelling hospitals and civilians, Australia has chosen a policy described by one of its former diplomats as ‘siding with genocide’. Not only is Australia fundamentally disregarding its international obligations on human rights, but is an active partner in Sri Lanka’s repression. And it is not the only western state.
 
In widely reported comments during his visit, Minister Carr blithely dismissed asylum seekers fleeing the island as ‘economic migrants.’ This claim, enthusiastically grasped and repeated by the Sri Lankan state, cruelly belittles the utter desperation of the refugees and the perilous journeys they are willing to undertake.  Packed into dangerously dilapidated boats on journeys lasting thousands of miles, and paying extortionate sums, asylum seekers risk arrest and torture by the Sri Lankan Navy to reach foreign shores, where they then face indefinite detention in camps described as ‘unbearable’ by the UN human rights chief.
 
Strengthening the Sri Lankan state’s ‘capacity’ without addressing the institutionalised racism at its core will not resolve the issue of asylum boats. Far from being ‘weak’ or ‘lacking’ capacity the Sri Lankan state has robust and well developed institutional structures, backed and funded by generous donor assistance. It is precisely because of this that Sri Lanka has been able to successfully prosecute genocidal repression for several decades, through both overt violence and more subtle administrative and economic means of demographic change and exclusion. Strengthening the Sri Lankan state will not therefore stem the flow of asylum seekers but merely deepen the conditions of repression that drives them. For example, Australia’s promised funding for rural projects and schools will simply enable Sri Lankan’s project of erecting a permanent militarized Sinhala domination of Tamil speaking areas. Inevitably, more Tamils will seek to flee. It is no accident that the recent ‘rise’ in asylum boats takes place amid the collapse of the last hopes of a ‘post-conflict’ improvement in security and freedom.
 
Moreover, Australia’s asylum policy is in marked contrast with its position at the UN Human Rights Council. Whilst diplomats in Geneva continue to deplore the state of human rights in Sri Lanka, bureaucrats in Canberra deport refugees back to the very oppression their colleagues are condemning. Australia is not of course alone in this hypocrisy. Canada, while vocal in its condemnation of the lack of accountability and reconciliation in post war Sri Lanka, nevertheless continues to deny asylum seekers refuge and treats Tamil ‘boat people’ with hostility and suspicion. Britain is similarly implacably deporting Tamil asylum seekers to Sri Lanka. In well documented cases many of these people, tortured and sexually abused on arrival in Sri Lanka, have again managed to escape and have since been granted asylum in the UK. Despite this clear evidence, deportations continue and returnees are sent back to an uncertain fate with nothing to rely on but a piece of paper with the British High Commission’s number.
 
Whilst refusing to accept the accounts of asylum seekers, these countries have nevertheless joined international efforts to pressure Sri Lanka over its abysmal and deteriorating rights record. Western democracies, including Britain, Australia and Canada have also been insistent on the need for Sri Lanka to engage in an internationally recognised process to investigate and account for the grave war crimes committed during final stages of the war. The stark contradiction between these two positions – criticising Sri Lanka’s abuses whilst deporting abuse victims and potential war crimes witnesses – dilutes and undermines the credibility of international calls for accountability and reconciliation.
 
As long as western states continue to deny refuge to the victims of Sri Lanka’s abuses, the regime in Colombo has little need to take heed of international pressure. In short, unless western states start to take seriously their own international obligations towards human rights refugees fleeing Sri Lanka’s persecution, their efforts to elicit accountability, reconciliation and sustainable peace there are guaranteed to fail. The hypocrisy inherent in the contradiction between asylum policies and commitments to human rights must end. At present, western asylum regimes serve as direct extensions of Sri Lanka’s repression of the Tamils.