Elaine Pearson. The civil war may have ended, but not the persecution.

What’s happening to boatloads of Tamil asylum seekers on the Indian Ocean? Allegations that Australian authorities have intercepted at least two Tamil boats and handed them over to the Sri Lankan navy after only brief telephone interviews are extremely troubling. Until now, the Australian government has neither confirmed nor denied these allegations – giving the now long-tired excuse of secrecy around all operational matters concerning border security. 

If Tamils are being handed over to the Sri Lankan armed forces, then the Australian government may well end up with blood on its hands. Sri Lanka has a long and well known record of repression and abuses by its security forces. The UN has implicated the Sri Lankan armed forces in war crimes during the 27-year conflict with the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE). Human Rights Watch has also documented the Sri Lankan authorities’ use of torture and rape against people suspected of links to the LTTE after the conflict, including those returned as failed asylum seekers from countries such as Australia.

Given such evidence of torture of returnees, it was always peculiar that Australia used the Orwellian “enhanced screening” procedure for Sri Lankans arriving by boat – essentially a fast-tracked deportation procedure after a cursory interview.  Now, it appears such interviews may be occurring by teleconference from the boats. This practice, without access to due process and access to lawyers, is unlawful in light of Australia’s obligations under international law.

The UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) maintains that identification and processing of asylum seekers is “most appropriately carried out on dry land.” The agency notes that shipboard processing often fails to meet procedural standards for determining refugee status, including the failure to provide adequate access to interpreters, ensuring the privacy and confidentiality of interviews, access to counsel, and lack of appeal. In addition to these considerations, people who have been interdicted often are dehydrated, exhausted, traumatized, and fearful of authorities; they are usually in no condition to articulate refugee claims.

If Australia is transferring asylum seekers into the hands of the Sri Lankan navy without adequately reviewing their claim this amounts to refoulement – sending someone back to a country where their life or freedom may be threatened or where they would face a real risk of torture or other ill-treatment.

Australia may want to protect its borders, but it should not risk being complicit in torture by sending Tamil asylum seekers back to Sri Lanka without a proper process to assess the legitimacy of their claims. Australian authorities need to come clean about what is happening at sea and give asylum seekers all the rights they are entitled to under international law.

Elaine Pearson is the Executive Director of Human Rights Watch Australia.

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