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Tamils’ horrific treatment makes them desperate to leave

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The "tough talk" over the case of Sri Lankan Tamil asylum seekers by Prime Minister Kevin Rudd and Australia's abrogation of its responsibility to these people in deals with Indonesia (which have turned sour) has left me puzzled and disappointed.


Where was this "tough talk" when Tamil civilians in Sri Lanka were being relentlessly shelled by the Sri Lankan military in the war earlier this year? What practical measures has the Australian Government taken to address the suffering of Tamil civilians in the internment camps in Sri Lanka since the war ended in May? More than 250,000 Tamil civilians have been detained since May in barbed-wire fenced internment camps, where they are subject to massive overcrowding, shortage of food and medical facilities, abductions, including the abduction of children, rape, torture, disease, and when the monsoons set in, flooding.


It is the extreme, so-called "push factors" and the entrenched discrimination against Tamils in Sri Lanka that leads to desperate acts, such as embarking on a dangerous voyage on unsafe vessels.


Human Rights Organisations, such Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch, have repeatedly expressed their concern about the conditions in the camps. Both organisations have repeatedly called for the release of Tamil civilians from the internment camps and have accused the Sri Lankan Government of falsely claiming that it had allowed thousands of detained civilians in the camps to return home. In reality, many of the people that the Government claims to have released have been transferred from one detention camp to another, a so-called "way station". Asia director at Human Rights Watch Brad Adams has said: "While the Government has the right to screen the displaced persons for security reasons, the process has turned into a ruse to hold as many Tamils for as long as possible in the camps. The Government's untruthful statements and promises should not fool anybody anymore."


Amnesty International has stated that the camps are filthy, overcrowded and dangerous. Heavy rains in September caused rivers of water to cascade through the tents, forcing camp residents to wade through sewage. Monsoon rains are expected to start soon, threatening to flood the camps. One escapee told Amnesty that some women are forced to give birth in front of strangers without privacy.


All international media and non-governmental organisations have been locked out of the camps, ensuring that the suffering of the people is far from public attention. The Times newspaper in England has reported that 1400 civilians each week are dying in the camps. British Foreign Secretary David Miliband has admitted to the House of Commons that the British Government was aware that the extrajudicial killing of Tamils has taken place, both inside and outside the camps. The European Union is set to recommend withdrawing trade benefits from Sri Lanka over alleged human rights abuses in the last stages of the civil war. The EU has investigated whether Sri Lanka violated the UN Convention against Torture, UN Convention on the Rights of the Child and UN Covenant on Civil and Political Rights. In August it completed a report that described a culture of "complete or virtually complete impunity in Sri Lanka", citing police torture, abductions of journalists and uninvestigated disappearances.


In addition, earlier this week, in a 70-page report, the US Government was highly critical of the Sri Lankan Government. The report alleged that Sri Lankan Government forces abducted and killed ethnic Tamil civilians, shelled and bombed no-fire zones, and killed senior rebel leaders with whom they had brokered a surrender. The report describes a hellish scene, in which a no-fire zone, crowded with civilians, was struck by sustained shelling and bombing. It estimated that 100 people per day were killed by Sri Lankan army shelling and bombing. Hospitals in the area were continually struck by shells, even though their locations had been carefully reported to the Government.


Many of the critics of the 260 asylum seekers label them "queue jumpers". How can one jump a queue, when one was never allowed to join the queue? The United Nations refugee agency (UNHCR), which is responsible for processing the claims of refugees, is not allowed in the camps.


The Australian Government's response has been to pledge to send Australian police to Sri Lanka to help the Government there clamp down on the exodus of asylum seekers. This is after the Australian Government that sent its deputy chief of the navy, Rear Admiral Davyd Thomas, to Colombo in June 2009 to urge that young Tamils be prevented from coming to Australia. Has Australia sent a parliamentary delegation to Sri Lanka to inspect the internment camps and see the conditions for themselves? The answer is no. The weak response of the Australian Government to its own citizen, UNICEF spokesman James Elder who was expelled from Sri Lanka, illustrates its lack of conviction in addressing the human rights concerns of the Tamil people. Furthermore, in July, a second Australian citizen, also a senior UN diplomat was given two weeks to leave the country, for providing detailed rebuttals of Sri Lankan Government "wartime propaganda" during the final battles against the Tamil Tigers. Both expulsions were under the instructions of Palitha Kohona, the then permanent secretary to the Ministry of Foreign Affairs of the Sri Lankan Government. He has just been awarded permanent representative of Sri Lanka to the UN. Kohona is also an Australian citizen, who, before returning to Sri Lanka, was the head of the trade and investment section of the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade.


People do not flee their home countries lightly. Demonising asylum seekers or people smugglers does not help the situation. We need to understand the conditions that force people to flee their home countries. The definition of a refugee is someone who flees persecution. It would be worth examining why Sri Lankan Tamils fear persecution. The Australian Government should look carefully at the situation in Sri Lanka, and urge the Sri Lankan Government to improve its treatment of Tamil citizens if it wants to stem the tide of asylum seekers.


David Feith is the author of Conflict in Sri Lanka and Stalemate: Refugees in Asia.

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