The Rudd government’s decision to freeze asylum applications for Sri Lankans and Afghanistan nationals is, it says, based on the view that political and social conditions in both countries are improving.  But a recent decision by the Refugee Review Tribunal (the RRT), the independent arbiter of asylum claims, casts some doubt on that claim.

In a decision handed down on March 11 in Sydney, RRT member Christine Long found that a Sri Lankan woman (who, like all applicants in migration cases, is not identified by name) who is a Tamil was a “person to whom Australia has protection obligations under the Refugees Convention”.

The woman had fled Sri Lanka after being accused of supporting the Tamil Tigers and was told by paramilitaries never to come back to Sri Lanka. She and her husband gave evidence to the RRT about the risks of returning to Sri Lanka.

The woman told the RRT that she and her husband are on a wanted list drawn up by paramilitaries. When asked by the RRT why she feared being harmed if she returned to Sri Lanka today, the woman said that “…they will kill her if she goes back because she has been detained and beaten and this will come to their attention if she goes back. She said she is branded as a Tiger”.

The woman’s husband told the RRT that in “Sri Lanka paramilitaries are everywhere. Those paramilitaries were once with the Tigers and then they left the movement”.  He told the RRT “paramilitaries are stationed to catch Tigers but they abduct Tamils and extort money”.

Long found that the woman “has a well-founded fear of being persecuted for reasons of her imputed political opinion and her race if she returns to her country now or in the reasonably foreseeable future”.

Of course, the RRT’s view about Sri Lanka in this case has to be seen in the context of the woman and her husband’s personal circumstances. What this decision also shows is that it is essential that every Sri Lankan person who makes a claim for refugee protection in Australia should be entitled to have their claim fairly assessed.

The RRT’s decision also suggests that foreign minister Stephen Smith’s claim over the weekend that conditions are improving in Sri Lanka is a sweeping generalisation that ignores the reality for each person.

This is not the only case of verbal overreach by the Rudd government on this issue. Smith and Immigration Minister Chris Evans claimed last Friday that other countries had also begun to suspend processing asylum seeker claims from Sri Lanka and Afghanistan.

Not so, says the UNHCR regional chief Richard Towle, who The Australian quotes this morning as saying, “I am not aware of any other countries in the industrialised world which have suspensions in place for asylum claims for people from these countries.”

Peter Fray

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Peter Fray
Editor-in-chief of Crikey