Photo credit: Scheherazade Bloul  

At 5pm on Tuesday evening, refugee advocates lost contact with a Sri Lankan man facing deportation.

The man in question, Santharuban, is now in an unknown location with reports he will board a flight to Sri Lanka on Thursday following a deportation notice from the Australian government.

Santharuban is also a former member of the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) commonly known as the Tamil Tigers.

The Tamil Refugee Council (TRC) said detainees in the centre were informed that Santharuban was handcuffed and taken from his room at about 9pm on Tuesday evening. They said that he resisted, but was overwhelmed and his belongings were also removed.

“A lot of refugee activists in Melbourne have been working around the clock and they have their eyes on the MITA detention centre in Broadmeadows trying to see if he has been moved and trying to prevent his deportation,” said Umesh Perinpanayagam, a researcher working with TRC.

Fleeing by boat in 2012, Santharuban has been detained at Melbourne Immigration Transit Accommodation (MITA) since 2017. He was re-detained in January 2016 in various detention centres. But the department won’t tell his lawyers where he is and the last they heard from him was on Wednesday afternoon.

“So everyone is in the dark,” said Perinpanayagam. “We know the deportation is scheduled for today, there’s a very slim chance that some legal action could halt the deportation but activists are still actively trying figure out where he is and seeing if it’s still possible to prevent him being deported back to danger.”

Just after 1pm, Crikey received confirmation that Santharuban was en route and would land in Sri Lanka at 2:30am local time.

How was his application handled?

Though arriving as a person seeking asylum, Santharuban did not immediately inform the Australian government of his involvement with the LTTE — which is a registered a terrorist organisation by the Sinhalese-majority government in Sri Lanka, the victors of the 26-year civil war.

“Obviously if a refugee is coming to Australia after fleeing persecution, as is the case with ex-Tamil Tigers, they might not say they were part of such a group as it may be perceived [by them] such an admission would be detrimental to their case,” said Alison Battisson, the Director Principal at Human Rights for All.

In addition, when Santharuban went to appeal his case with “new” evidence from prominent ex-LTTE members who testified to knowing Santharuban while he was involved with the LTTE naval wing, the Sea Tigers, it was ruled inadmissible.

“A reasonably new regime was set up by the government called Immigration Assessment Authority (IAA) to fast-track application processes, which meant that previous omissions could not be included,” said Battison. She said that the premise of the IAA was set up in 2015 as a “way [for the government] to circumnavigate tribunals and courts”.

Could his ethnicity be relevant to the refusal of his application?

In the year 2013/14 Sri Lankans made up the largest number of primary refusals, significantly higher than any other group (1442 refusals, 50.3% of all refusals).

Santharuban’s application was considered in the quarter when only 6.7% of applications from Sri Lanka were successful at the primary stage.

“These statistics suggest that large numbers of Tamils are having their claims for protection (TPV, SHEV) rejected. In the last year and a half, around 1300 claims have failed at both the primary and appeal stage — the largest of any single country group. All these people will likely face deportation unless they can successfully appeal through the courts,” said Perinpanayagam.

The UN Committee against Torture’s had placed an interim measure preventing the deportation of Santharuban claiming there was sufficient concern of harm but it was lifted after the Australian Mission to the UN wrote to the Committee a week ago, saying his claims were unsubstantiated.

“The evidentiary standard for these interim measures is very high — they are extremely difficult to get… It is unclear what investigation the UN undertook, considering the UN said it is dangerous for [Santharuban] to be returned,” said Battison.

How well do Sri Lanka and Australia’s governments get on?

The Australian and Sri Lankan governments have extremely close ties, particularly since people seeking asylum have become something of a political football between major parties in Australia in the wake of September 11.

Both governments uphold that many asylum seekers from Sri Lanka are not fleeing persecution, and instead arrive as economic migrants even though the majority of asylum seekers are from the Tamil minority.

In December, a UN working group on arbitrary detention released preliminary findings from its visit to the country noting that Tamils, upon returning after seeking asylum or working abroad were arrested and detained in 2015, 2016 and 2017.

“The Working Group received testimony that, in some cases, the returnees were beaten and kept under surveillance once released, and charged with offences relating to illegal departure from Sri Lanka,” the report said.

Former Tiger members and returned Tamil refugees are routinely harassed, interrogated and worse by Sri Lankan security forces.

Under the Prevention of Terrorism Act, the Sri Lankan government is able to detain people without charge or trial which Human Rights Watch found was a contributing factor toward the persistence of torture in the country.

Scheherazade Bloul is a freelance journalist and PhD candidate at the UNESCO chair for cultural diversity and social justice at Deakin University.

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