Tony Abbott in Sri Lanka. John Menadue

Tony Abbott  has continued his ‘stop the boats campaign” in Sri Lanka regardless of growing concerns about human rights abuses in that country.

He offered two patrol boats as part of a ‘foreign aid package’. His justification for this is that it would help save the lives of people drowning at sea. Please spare us this hypocracy. The real reason is that with the cooperation of the Sri Lankan Navy he hopes he stop asylum seekers leaving Sri Lanka and possibly landing in Australia. The previous government used the same phoney excuse that it wanted to stop the boats to stop the drownings.

But the drownings were really only a secondary part of the story. The main story was attempts to stop the boats carrying asylum seekers who were seeking refuge in Australia. It was politically embarrassing for them to come by boat.

As asylum seekers in direct flight from persecution, Sri Lankans were unlike many other boat people who were in transit through Malaysia and Indonesia to Australia. Those in transit were not in direct flight from persecution. Because Sri Lankans landing in Australia are in direct flight, they have a particularly strong claim to our protection as the first country of asylum.

Tony Abbott last week  said that he would not comment on human rights abuses in Sri Lanka. But when it suited him he had no hesitation in criticising human rights policies in Malaysia. He criticised ‘judicial canings’ and many other alleged abuses in order to discredit the Gillard Government’s attempt to stem the boats by negotiating an agreement with Malaysia in cooperation with UNHCR.

Last week the UK Prime Minister went out of his way to visit the Tamil areas in northern Sri Lanka. He expressed concern about human rights abuses. Canada refused to attend CHOGM at all because of  concerns over human rights abuses in Sri Lanka. The Indian Prime Minister did not attend.

So as with the naval boats, Tony Abbott is quite misleading when he refuses to comment on human rights abuses in Sri Lanka.

Successive Australian governments have badly treated Sri Lankans seeking asylum in Australia. Some have been ‘voluntarily’ repatriated to Sri Lanka. Very few people know how much pressure was applied by government officials to persuade them to leave Australia.

Some Sri Lankans coming to Australia have been found to be genuine refugees but have been refused permanent residence status because of dubious and secret ASIO assessments. These assessments would in part have relied on information supplied by Sri Lankan intelligence agencies who are not known to be friendly to Tamils. The fact also that a person has been a member of the Tamil Tigers should not  automatically rule that person out from our protection. Given the ruthlessness of the Sri Lankan military it is not surprising that young Tamils would join the Tamil Tigers. For the same reason, Irish nationalists would have joined the IRA decades ago. Some are now members of parliament and ministers.

To break the impasse over the persecution of Tamils and persons fleeing Sri Lanka, the Australian Government should negotiate an Orderly Departure Agreement with the Sri Lankan Government which would enable persons facing discrimination in Sri Lanka to leave that country in a safe and orderly way – perhaps 2,000 to 3,000 p.a.  It would provide an alternate migration pathway. It would not be a refugee pathway as those covered under such an ODA would still be resident within Sri Lanka. It is possible that the Sri Lankan Government would cooperate, at least quietly, as it would probably be pleased to rid itself of Tamil dissidents.

When I was Secretary of the Department of Immigration and Citizenship in the early 1980s, Australia negotiated such ODAs with the Communist government in Vietnam and the military regimes in Chile and El Salvador. Over 100,000 came from Vietnam under such an arrangement. Thousands came from Chile and hundreds from El Salvador.

We should seriously consider an alternative migration pathway for Tamils and others facing human rights abuses and discrimination in Sri Lanka.

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