Tamil refugees who fled from Sri Lanka to Australia following the civil war in 2009, have spoken to SBS News about their experiences of being deported back to the island.
After displacement, loss of family and safety fears at the end of the civil war, many Tamils boarded on boats to reach Australia in hopes of rebuilding their lives. Many of these asylum seekers took our arduous loans just to board these boats. Whilst on board, they can go days without proper food and water whilst enduring tough conditions with many other asylum seekers. Those who do finally reach Australia face many struggles to be granted asylum with many being sent back to Sri Lanka despite fears for their safety.
See testimonies from the SBS News piece below. See the full piece here.
Subramaniyam Mahendran, now living in Mullaitivu, travelled to Australia by boat in 2012 after escaping from a refugee camp. He boarded a boat with dozens of other asylum seekers in tough conditions. “People had wounds for sitting for so long," he said. "Some had difficulty breathing, were suffocating before we even reached our destination.”
Subramaniyam was sent to multiple detention centres, before being allowed to work for two years. After settling in to Australia, he received news that his refugee application was rejected. The Australian Department of Immigration and Border Protection told him it was safe to return to Sri Lanka but it came as a surprise to Subramaniyam who said, “I was paying taxes, not taking anything from the government. We were making a positive thing, so why did they remove us?”.
Tamil Refugee Council spokesman Aran Mylvaganam pointed out that Tamil refugees have one of the lowest acceptance rates for refugee applications in Australia, with about 9 in 10 applications getting rejected.
Subramaniyam, along with many Tamils, is fearful of the appointment of alleged war criminal Gotabaya Rajapaksa as the new president, by stating “we don’t know what type of problems will come, we still have fear from what happened in the past."
Most recently it was reported that a Swiss Embassy official was abducted and assaulted, raising concerns that there may be a return in ‘white van’ abductions again on the island.
Most Tamil asylum seekers in Australia have serious claims of abuse at the hands of Sri Lankan security forces. Despite a decade since the war ended, there has been constant surveillance, fear of harassment and arrests of Tamils by security forces.
The Australian government have been very strict with asylum cases and of those several refugees sent back is Anthonippillai Tharshan. Tharshan spent months in and out of different detention centres in the country. After working in the country for two years, his refugee application was twice rejected and he was ordered to leave the country. “They stopped us from working," he said. "After that, the government didn’t give us money to buy food.”
The International Truth and Justice Project (ITJP) cited 73 cases of torture and sexual violence by the Sri Lankan Police in 2019. The complaints received by The Human Rights Commission of Sri Lanka stated the “use of torture by the police throughout the country as a means of interrogation and investigation.” There has been constant harassment and surveillance by security forces for Tamils upon returning to Sri Lanka.
Joseph Arulraj sought asylum in Australia in 2012 after arriving by boat. His refugee claim was unresolved and after waiting in a detention centre for five years, he decided to voluntarily return to his family in Sri Lanka. “Everyone was being arrested during that period," he explained. "Anything could happen at that time, so that’s why I left. We were living in war for 30 years. We still feel this is a tense situation here.”
Despite the Australian and Sri Lankan government promising it is safe for refugees to return, many Tamils who return become trapped in lengthy legal battles. A family who were flown back to Colombo from Christmas Island are required to appear before a court in Negombo every six months, with no details of charges disclosed to them. Many refugees who are caught on the boat are fined or face imprisonment.
A group of Tamil men from Jaffna said how very few Tamils seek refuge in Australia because “if the Sri Lankan navy captures us, the consequences are very bad. We will be charged, and put in prison for five or six years”.
Despite this, the Australian Government said it stands by its process of assessing asylum seeker applications and returning those that are not granted refugee visas. They have no plans of reconsidering its policy of returning Tamil asylum seekers back to Sri Lanka or to stop seeking asylum by boat by holding close working relationships with the Sri Lankan government. A spokesperson for the Department of Home Affairs said " All applications for protection visas are assessed on a case by case basis using current and comprehensive country information. People who have no lawful basis to remain in Australia are expected to return home."
Dr Muttukrishna Sarvananthan, an economist at Jaffna University, studied Tamil migration to Australia and the transport of people across the region and advised that a change in president has made it difficult to foresee the futures of Tamil refugees. “This is a transition in Sri Lanka right now. We don’t know what the future will be like. It could be a reversal of the freedom we have gained over the last five years,” he says. "I think foreign governments should wait six to twelve months …to see how the president deals with particular minorities or handles the surveillance of particular minority groups."