In September, 11 asylum seekers, including nine Sri Lankan Tamils, made headlines when they spent 24 hours protesting on the roof of Villawood Immigration Detention Centre in Sydney. With their asylum applications rejected, the aim, according to one protester, Danushan, was to communicate to a wider Australian public the life threatening situations they would face if deported and demand a review of their cases.
In July the Australian government announced that, with the resumption of its processing of Tamil asylum applications, many would face deportation in line with its view that conditions had improved in Sri Lanka. But those being held at Villawood tell of families still suffering threats and abuse at the hands of government forces in Sri Lanka and warnings that they face the same if deported.
The civil war between the majority Sinhalese and Tamil minority in Sri Lanka is often described in terms of “ethnic tensions”, but the origins of the conflict reside in political and social inequalities that date back to the rise of Sinhala nationalism following the Independence of Ceylon in 1948 when many Indian Tamils were deprived of citizenship and ethnic Tamils were politically, socially and economically marginalised. This was exacerbated by the Sinhala Only Act, introduced in 1956, which stipulated that Sinhala was the one and only official language of the country.
Decades of resentment at discrimination and unequal access to employment, land, education and public services gave birth to the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam in 1976, which began a bitter war against the Sinhalese dominant Sri Lankan government in 1983 for an independent Tamil state in the north and east of the country.
Danushan is from the Ampara district in the east of Sri Lanka, an area controlled by the LTTE during the war. While his father was a farmer, Danushan was conscripted to serve as a cook for the Tamil Tigers, in accordance with an LTTE rule that one member of every Tamil family had to work for them. It was compulsory for him to live in an LTTE camp and he worked from 8am to 9pm, seven days a week.
In 2001, he was able to escape when the camp he was in was bombed and with the help of a family friend fled the country. On his return in 2007, he was captured by the Karuna faction.
In 2004, Colonel Karuna Amman formed a breakaway faction of the LTTE in a campaign to secure representation for eastern Tamils, but subsequently collaborated in military offensives with the Sri Lankan armed forces against the LTTE.
“The Karuna group tried to force me to join them, but I refused,” Danushan said, “because I don’t agree with the Karuna group’s policies. They were killing Tamil people, they were torturing Tamil women, so I didn’t want to be a part of it. I don’t want to work with any armed group.”
Danushan’s abhorrence of violence follows painful memories of witnessing atrocities. Several years before, Danushan used to stay at a relative’s house to study.
“In 1997, when I was staying with my auntie and her four children, about 11.30pm or 12 midnight, a lot of [Sri Lankan] army officers came,” he recounted. “They surrounded the house and then tied the children up, including me, and in front of our eyes they r-ped my auntie.” She was finally killed, in front of them, with a grenade.
After fleeing the Karuna group following the end of the war in 2009: “My family came and saw me, and then they said you had better go, otherwise it is dangerous for you.”
And the end of the war did not bring peace or safety for his family in Sri Lanka: “After I arrived in Australia, they [Karuna faction] went looking for me and assaulted my father and broke his arm, and he ended up in hospital for a few days. My brother has now run away and he is hiding.”
When Danushan’s case for asylum was rejected in Australia, he asked his mother to send evidence that he lived in the Tiger-controlled area. “My mother went to the post office to send the information to Christmas Island,” he explained. “But the Karuna group were there and saw her. They bashed her up and split her head, and she was in hospital for five days.”
According to Danushan, Immigration officials told him that he was not an important person in the LTTE and, therefore, he could go back to Sri Lanka. “But in Sri Lanka if you only give a glass of water to the LTTE, they will harass you, but because I have been cooking for the LTTE for a long time, I will definitely be killed,” he claims.
The Australian Department of Immigration wouldn’t be drawn on the specifics of the case. “All asylum applications are processed against migration law with all available information,” a spokesperson said.
Article 33 of the Refugee Convention stipulates that no contracting state shall return a refugee to territories where his or her life or freedom will be threatened on account of race, religion, nationality or political opinion.
Amnesty International recently criticised the actions of the Australian and Sri Lankan governments following the revelation in September that three Sinhalese men — Sumith Mendis, Indika Mendis and Lasantha Wijeratne — who had sought asylum in Australia and were subsequently deported in 2009, were arrested, tortured and jailed on their return to Sri Lanka. This was followed by news in October of three Tamil asylum seekers who voluntarily returned to Sri Lanka from Indonesia and were also arrested. Their families have no news of their whereabouts and fear for their safety.
The President of Sri Lanka, Mahinda Rajapaksa, gave commitments this year to improve the economy and address the grievances of minorities, including Tamil and Muslim communities, with a political solution for power sharing and reconciliation. Though there are signs the economy is improving and many internally displaced people (IDPs) have returned to their home districts following the end of the war, the International Crisis Group has reported that: “The Rajapaksa government has initiated no political reforms to address the concerns of Tamils and other minorities”; “all ethnic communities are suffering from the collapse of the rule of law”; and “impunity for abuses by state officials continues …”
The continuing State of Emergency Rule and Prevention of Terrorism Act (PTA) in the country has given police and security forces wide powers to arrest and torture with impunity, with recurring disappearances and arbitrary detention cited in the UN Country Report on Sri Lanka, published in April 2010.
Danushan sees few options if he is deported: “Instead of going back, getting tortured and killed and showing where my family is, I might as well have an easy death here.”
* Danushan’s real name has been changed to protect his safety and that of his family.