By Michael Vincent, ABC News
Updated Wed May 19, 2010 10:22am AEST
Refugee advocates say at least nine asylum seekers returned to Sri Lanka by the Howard government were killed and those sent back in past year have been held in police custody and some assaulted.
Australia has suspended its processing of Sri Lankan asylum seekers pending a review of conditions in Sri Lanka.
Immigration Minister Chris Evans says the Federal Government has a “major problem” returning asylum seekers who have been involved with the Tamil Tigers.
Phil Glendenning, the director of the Catholic Church’s Edmund Rice Centre, has recently returned from Sri Lanka and says the country is in danger of becoming a police state.
“We found that of the 11 people removed to Sri Lanka over the course of the last year or so, that all of them had been arrested at the airport,” he said.
“Some of them had been bashed, assaulted. One man has permanent hearing damage, another has had sight damaged.”
Mr Glendenning says those arrested are asylum seekers sent home from Australia.
“[The Australian Government sent them back] and gave them a guarantee of their safety. The thing is they arrive at the airport; they’re immediately handed over to the CID, which is the Sri Lankan police,” he said.
“The difficulty here is that there is a view in Sri Lanka that anybody who left the country through an unauthorised manner, of unauthorised means, is an LTTE sympathiser and if they are Sinhalese people who left, then they must therefore be traitors.
“That’s the assumption. People have been put into prison and held there and the key thing is here that detention can be indefinite. There are people who were removed from Australia at the beginning of this year who are still in prison.”
Breach of obligations
The refugee advocate says by returning these people, Australia has breached its refugee obligations.
“Under Australian refugee law, it is a breach of the law to return people to danger, to re-foul people and we believe that has happened,” he said.
“The people are put into prison; the court process is that they’re heard in the prison. The magistrate continues to postpone the cases to a later date, no legal arguments are taken and so you get the situation of it just rolling forward.
“On the ground, those who are in the community, there’s a danger of being regularly abducted and it’s quite an established fact that groups like Reporters Without Borders have attested that Sri Lanka is not safe.”
Mr Glendenning is also unconvinced by the Sri Lankan government’s claims it is a democracy.
“Sri Lanka would say that because it’s in their interest to say that,” he said.
“There is fear in Sri Lanka that anybody from the LTTE outside the country might be one of the LTTE to somehow reform it internationally. I think Sri Lanka is in danger of being seen as a police state.”
He says while the Federal Government is wise to urge caution in returning asylum seekers connected to the Tamil Tigers, in the eyes of the Sri Lankan government all those who fled are branded the same way.
“I think the position taken by the Minister yesterday in urging caution about returning people who would be seen as being involved with the LTTE is a very wise one,” he said.
“But of course we would see the importance of that to be extended to realise that on the ground in Sri Lanka, those in authority in the government and in the police, perceive those who left as either sympathisers or traitors and consequently sending them back is sending them back into danger.”