By Andrew Martin
Two deportations of Sri Lankan Tamil asylum seekers have been averted at least temporarily, pending a High Court challenge to be heard in the new year. These were to be the first deportations of people who arrived by boat under the current Labor government.
The Refugee Rights Action Network (RRAN) held protests outside the Perth Immigration Detention Centre against the deportations. This was combined with a legal challenge seeking a High Court injunction coordinated by Ian Rintoul, spokesperson for the Refugee Action Collective (RAC) NSW.
In a media release from RAC, Rintoul stated: “The government has been handed another opportunity by the courts to reconsider its dangerous policy of deporting asylum seekers to Sri Lanka and Afghanistan. Neither country is a safe place to return asylum seekers. Nor will they be safe in February next year.
“It also needs to view the cases of all asylum seekers processed under the discriminatory off-shore determination process.
“The Federal Magistrates Court this week declared that at least one of the off-shore refugee assessors, Steve Karas, was biased. He is not the only biased assessor. But behind them is a biased and discriminatory system. We would expect that all off-shore assessments, not just those made by Karas, will now subject to a truly independent review.”
It is hoped that the case will open up even more of the determination process, previously kept behind the scenes, to legal scrutiny.
RRAN was at the Perth detention centre when one of the Tamil men, Emil, was being removed to another immigration facility. The group of activists spent many hours on Sunday, December 18, blockading the centre and communicating with asylum seekers. RRAN visited the two men facing deportation, and it became clear that the government and Serco intended to continue with the deportations regardless of a case being in process. If the injunction had come only hours later, one of the men would have been flown to Sri Lanka via Singapore, where his wife had already been visited by police questioning her about his return. The other man, Vithurun, was due to be flown the next day.
The injunction restrains the immigration minister and the Department of Immigration and Citizenship (DIAC) from removing the asylum seekers pending the outcome of their case in February. There were loud cheers among the activists upon hearing that the injunction had been granted, and they were determined to make sure everyone inside the detention centre heard the news. Amid the usual chants of “Freedom, azadi” (a Persian word meaning freedom) and “Open the borders, close the camps”, activists included: “This time we won: we got our injunction” and “No deportation today”.
Protesters blocked a car that was taking Vithurun to a residential facility owned by DIAC, which claimed without any hint of irony that it was taking him to trauma and torture counselling. The claim is most likely untrue, but it shows how farcical the whole system of mandatory detention is and that nothing is too low for DIAC. Meanwhile, Emil was placed under suicide watch and was forced to sit in a chair, unable to sleep the night before he was due to depart. RRAN activists know of instances where refugees who are being deported are drugged before they are forced onto the plane.
According to sources who’ve worked inside the mandatory detention system, the trauma and torture counselling is completely ineffective and serves only as a soundboard for the refugees to relive the tragedies that they’ve escaped from. The biggest impact on mental health by far is the indefinite detention of refugees, most of whom had no knowledge at all about Australia’s system of mandatory detention. There is nothing like freedom in helping to overcome trauma.
Both Emil and Vithurun were elated at the actions of RRAN and said that they hadn’t been expecting any help from Australians. Vithurun, who is only 23 and has already spent 26 months in detention, said the actions “gave him more breath” and the courage to continue fighting; he sent a text message to activists saying “you all rock”.
Emil and Vithurun both sent this message to activists from NSW RAC and RRAN via email: “We cannot thank you enough for what you all have done for us. We and our family will always be grateful to you all for saving our lives. Thank you very very much for all the hard work you and your team did for us. Please continue supporting refugees in however way you can … we need you.”
However they have secured only a temporary reprieve. The legal process for asylum seekers is complex, and very few lawyers are willing to challenge it, particularly in WA because much of the legal process is conducted on the east coast. Both refugees had failed the Immigration Merits Review (IMR) process, and their applications for protection were dismissed by the Refugee Review Tribunal.
The challenge went to the High Court after being dismissed by the Federal Magistrates Court. The challenge is that there was a violation of procedural fairness in determining the status of both asylum seekers. Certain officers of the Merits Review Tribunal, which conducts the IMR, have systematically rejected every application they’ve received.
Both asylum seekers will remain in detention until the High Court case is heard in February. If they lose their case, they will still face deportation.
Under pressure from DIAC, some Tamils have been repatriated “voluntarily”, having signed an agreement after their claims for asylum were rejected. According to the Edmund Rice Centre, a humanitarian organisation, under the Howard government’s mandatory detention regime, at least nine Tamil refugees were killed upon their return to Sri Lanka. The number of those who have been beaten and imprisoned without any legal representation is not known. The United Nations Committee Against Torture has reported that it is “seriously concerned about the continued and consistent allegations of widespread use of torture and other cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment”, after hearing submissions from a number of NGOs.
Tens of thousands of Tamils, mostly civilians, were killed in the final stages of the civil war in Sri Lanka that had lasted for 26 years. Most died because the army bombarded designated no-fire zones. Sri Lanka is still unsafe for anyone who disagrees with the government. The Australian government is deporting asylum seekers, claiming that circumstances have improved and that it has assurances from the Sri Lankan government that human rights will be protected and that it is seeking reconciliation. These are the assurances of state-sponsored mass murderers who have told almost as many lies as the Australian government (one of which is that Australian refugee advocates are organising people-smuggling activities).
Australia not alone
While Australia has a bad human rights record towards asylum seekers, other social democratic governments around the world are seeking to emulate its Orwellian example and perhaps even outdo it. The UK government recently deported 50 Tamils to Sri Lanka. Despite the protests of several human rights organisations including Amnesty International, the UK Border Agency has carried out two large-scale deportations to Sri Lanka since June.
In an attempt to halt any future flights, the activist group Tamils Against Genocide has lodged a petition in the High Court claiming that the UK government has failed in its obligation to review its deportation policy in the light of new torture allegations.
In a case recently referred to in a Border Agency report, Freedom from Torture documented that in the northern spring this year, a Sri Lankan national known as Rohan had been tortured after travelling back from the UK. According to Freedom from Torture, Rohan, who held a UK student visa, claimed that after returning to visit a sick relative. At the airport the 32-year-old male was approached by two people claiming to be from Sri Lanka’s Criminal Investigation Department, who then bundled him into a van, where he was tied up, blindfolded and beaten. He was held for three days, beaten, stripped and his skin burned with heated metal.
Switzerland has taken similar steps to deport Tamils, who make up one of the largest migrant groups in the country. Hundreds of Tamils have protested in front of the parliament against the Federal Migration Office’s stance on the issue.
The lives of refugees are being bargained with as an item of diplomacy and electioneering. The front line against mandatory detention is becoming international. The refugee rights movement will have to increase its organisation in order to mobilise as many people as possible against the crimes of their governments.
(Andrew Martin is an activist with RRAN)
RRAN MeetingsRRAN WA is currently meeting on Mondays from 6.30pm at the Activist Centre, U15/5 Aberdeen Street, Perth (just north of the McIver Train Station). For more details, send us a message via our Contact RRAN WA page, or call/text us on 0412 860 168. Fremantle RRAN meets at 6pm on the first and third Wednesday of each month. Contact Fremantle RRAN