When it comes to asylum seeker policy in Australia, one of its biggest blind spots concerns Sri Lanka and ethnic Tamils fleeing for their lives. Sri Lanka continues to marginalise and persecute Tamils, continuing to chase the ghost of the long destroyed Tamil separatist organisation the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE), better known as the Tamil Tigers.
In the most recent case, a Tamil man, Thileepan Gnaneswaran, whose wife and daughter have been granted asylum in Australia, was refused a visa and deported to Sri Lanka. He was arrested upon arrival in Colombo on unspecified charges.
Gnaneswaran was deported because his family had links to the LTTE. Australian security services regularly take advice from Sri Lankan authorities on the political background of asylum seekers. Sri Lankan authorities are notoriously quick to brand individuals with the slimmest of connections to the Tamil Tigers as terrorists.
It should not have been surprising that Australia deported Gnaneswaran, given the advice they would likely have received from Sri Lankan authorities. He had been tortured by those same authorities before fleeing for what he had hoped would be the safety of Australia. Fleeing from torture is a principle grounds for being granted refugee status under the Refugee Convention, to which Australia is a signatory.
When Sri Lankan Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe visited Canberra early last year, standing next to Australian Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull he encouraged asylum seekers from his country in Australia to “come back”.
“All is forgiven,” he said during that visit. “They are welcome to return to Sri Lanka and we won’t prosecute them. We will help them.”
“But,” he added ominously, “remember, they broke the law in … attempting to come to Australia.”
What he did not add was that Sri Lankan asylum seekers in Australia were invariably fleeing persecution, including for their associations or those of their families.
Until the LTTE and some 40,000 civilians were slaughtered on a beach in north-east Sri Lanka in 2009, it was difficult to be a Tamil in that country and not have some personal or familial association with the pervasive LTTE. Tamils who were press-ganged into joining or working for the organisation remain permanently branded — if they survived.
The UN High Commissioner for Refugees has condemned Australia’s decision to deport Gnaneswaran. The UNHCR has noted that under Australian law he cannot be sponsored to return to Australia and will be prevented from even visiting his wife or child while in Australia. It said Australia had actively and indefinitely separated the Gnaneswaran family.
The Australian and Sri Lankan navies closely cooperate to stem the flow of asylum seekers fleeing Sri Lanka by boat. Australia has provided patrol boats to Sri Lanka for that purpose.
Prime Minister Wickremesinghe had earlier said that the Australian government was silent on human rights abuses in Sri Lanka under his predecessor’s regime in order to secure cooperation on stopping asylum-seeker boats. It’s interesting to see that silence continue today.
Damien Kingsbury is professor of international politics at Deakin University and author of Sri Lanka and the Responsibility to Protect: Politics, Ethnicity and Genocide.