TUESDAY 26 FEBRUARY 2013 Sri Lanka , World
Foreign Affairs Correspondent, Channel 4
The British government plans to deport 65 Sri Lankan nationals – mostly Tamil, and mostly failed asylum seekers – despite earlier admitting that at least 15 Tamils previously sent back were tortured.
Lawyers seeking a judicial reversal of the decision order by the UK Border Agency have branded it “a contemptuous act of defiance” on the part of the government.
Channel 4 News has obtained Home Office Removal Directions (see image, below) which have been sent to lawyers representing the 65 Sri Lankan nationals destined to be placed on flight PVT030. It is scheduled to leave the UK for Sri Lanka at 4pm on Thursday from an as yet undesignated airport.
The removal of Tamils by this private charter flight on Thursday is a contempuous act of defiance by the UK government in the face of growing evidence that Tamils sent back to Sri Lanka from the UK are being tortured
– barrister representing Tamils
The decision to remove them coincides with an immigration tribunal which is currently hearing evidence in London which will be used to update Home Office Country Guidance for Sri Lanka. The guidance will help immigration judges to determine in future whether it is safe to send people back to the country, which has an alarmingly persistent record of serious human rights abuse.
This includes abduction, secret detention, torture, rape and murder of those who oppose the increasingly authoritarian regime of President Mahinda Rajapaksa.
Most of the victims are ethnic Tamils. A 27-year-long Tamil insurgency was defeated in May 2009 at the loss of tens of thousands of civilian lives. Human rights groups say the abuse of Tamils continues as the security forces work to extinguish the members of rebellion once and for all.
Out of date
Britain’s existing UKBA Country Guidance dates from 2009 and is considered woefully outdated. Already, one Appeal Court Judge – Mr Justice Underhill – has ruled that a Tamil woman should be granted a stay and taken off Thursday’s flight because, in his view, the ‘current’ Country Guidance no longer properly reflects the risk to Tamils on return to Sri Lanka. He made this order just last week.
One of the barristers representing clients on Flight PVT030 told Channel 4 News: “The removal of Tamils by this private charter flight on Thursday is a contempuous act of defiance by the UK government in the face of growing evidence that Tamils sent back to Sri Lanka from the UK are being tortured.”
It beggars belief that the UK government is still prepared to forcibly return more Tamils when its removals policy for Sri Lanka remains so out of date
– Keith Best, chief executive of Freedom From Torture.
Another High Court Judge considering the legality of these planned removals has signaled his concern by ordering that immigration lawyers argue their cases orally tomorrow (Wednesday) afternoon. Judicial review applications are normally dealt with on paper.
Immigration lawyers say this is extremely unusual and demonstrates that the judge believes the matter to be of sufficient gravity to warrant his hearing legal arguments in person.
Body of evidence
On 6 February 2013, the UK Border Agency provided a response to a Freedom of Information request from the charity Freedom from Torture, which admitted that 15 failed Sri Lankan asylum seekers removed from the UK since May 2009, had been tortured. All fifteen later made it back to Britain, where all were granted asylum on the basis of their claims.
On 1 February, the Foreign Office Minister for South Asia, Alistair Burt, told the BBC while on a visit to Colombo that the UK had no evidence that Tamils were tortured on their return to Sri Lanka. It is understood that Mr Burt was unaware of the pending publication of the UKBA’s admission.
There is method in this. It is coercive. It is a deliberate policy
– David Mepham, UK director of Human Rights Watch
But Channel 4 News has established that the total number of individuals granted asylum on the basis of their credible claims to have been tortured in Sri Lanka having been deported from the UK is actually much higher: more than 48 since 2009. This is because some returnees go back to Sri Lanka voluntarily – such as students returning on holiday.
“We argue that returning students are being detained and tortured,” one London-based Tamil activist familiar with the Country Guidance review says. “The risk is even worse for failed asylum-seekers who have already admitted to the UK government that they are opponents of the regime in Sri Lanka.”
Read more: Sri Lanka -skeletons in the cupboard?
The new Sri Lanka Country Guidance ruling will consider the increased risk faced by Tamil returnees as a result of their having any perceived links to the now defunct Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam – or due to their having taken part in protests against the Sri Lankan government in the UK. Some immigration lawyers believe returnees from the UK may be at risk because of their Tamil ethnicity alone.
A number of prominent human rights organisations, among them the charity Freedom from Torture, have documented, through detailed ‘medico-legal reports’ the widespread use of torture among Tamils who have fled Sri Lanka. FfT’s chief executive Keith Best said: “It beggars belief that the UK government is still prepared to forcibly return more Tamils when its removals policy for Sri Lanka remains so out of date.”
On Tuesday Human Rights Watch published a report documenting the widespread use of sexual violence against Tamils by the Sri Lankan Security Forces. The report says that rape and other sexual violence have long been used as unlawful tools by the military and the police to gather intelligence. It documents cases as recently as last year and includes voluntary and forcible returns from the UK.
Launching the report, David Mepham, UK director of Human Rights Watch said: “There is method in this. It is coercive. It is a deliberate policy. People throughout the security forces in Sri Lanka are involved. This is deeply entrenched and systematic.”
Channel 4 News sought an interview with Immigration Minister Mark Harper, to ask why Tamils are still being forcibly removed despite the UKBA’s own admission that many have been tortured upon their return. Our request was declined – as have numerous past requests on this issue.
The UK Border Agency provided Channel 4 News with the following statement: “The UK has a proud record of offering sanctuary to those who need it, but people who do not have a genuine need for our protection must return to their home country.
“Each claim for asylum is considered on its individual merits – and where we find individuals are in need of our protection, for example if they are at real risk of being tortured or ill treatment on return, we will give it.”
“We constantly review the situation in Sri Lanka and the current position, supported by the European Court of Human Rights, is that not every Tamil asylum seeker requires our protection. We will consider the outcome of the ongoing Country Guidance case on returns to Sri Lanka once concluded.”
In response to the government, Mr Best said: “Research from Freedom from Torture and other respected NGOs, which seems to be supported by the government’s own response to our Freedom of Information request, is amongst the strongest evidence ever assembled about torture in a specific country following return from the UK.
“At the very least the government must ensure no Sri Lankan Tamils within the risk category we have identified are forced back while the courts are still ruling on the safety of the UKBA’s removals policy.”