By Peter Coghlan and Sue Longmore
As much as the world seems to have stopped this year and gone into collective hibernation, the reality is depressingly different.
Human rights abuses continue, just as they had before COVID-19 distracted attention and, worse, life-saving support.
One such minority group whose desperate plight seems to have been forgotten is Sri Lanka’s Tamil population. This community has a long association with the Queenscliff Uniting Church, which has for many years worked with the Queenscliff Rural Australians for Refugees to support and give voice to refugees and people seeking asylum.
Last year, a social food project called Tamil Welcome Feasts was featured at the QUC. Initiated by Sri Lankan Tamil refugees, with support from QUC and QRAR, nine monthly feasts brought together more than 600 people to experience the food and culture of Sri Lankan Tamils, and to listen to their stories of lived experience. Some of the stories surprised and shocked attendees.
Persecution of the Tamil population at the hands of the Sri Lankan government is not new. It has continued unabated, and largely unreported, since it sought independence as a separate state more than 40 years ago. A ceasefire was signed in February 2002, but the persecution of Tamils continued.
Sri Lanka is ruled by recently re- elected president Gotabaya Rajapaksa and prime minister Mahinda Rajapaksa, Gotabaya’s brother. Their re-election came despite – or, more likely, because of – their “campaign of fear”, as it was described by the Human Rights Watch.
To give you an idea of what the Rajapaksa brothers are capable of, in 2009 they played key roles in the armed forces killing thousands of men, women and children on the beach at Mullivaikal. Tens of thousands of bodies littered Mullivaikal and the area to its north- west. Many surviving Tamil rebels were tortured, mutilated and executed.
Continued persecution has led to many fleeing Sri Lanka over the past 10 years, with some landing on Australia’s shores. As at August 2020, more than 2000 Tamil refugees in Australia had been recognised as UN convention refugees and granted Temporary Protection Visas. A further 962 were still awaiting their application interviews or results.
The QRAR, which is a member group of the Combined Refugee Action Group, is aware of many more Tamils and asylum seekers in the Home Affairs “system”, and anecdotally, the disproportionate number of rejections.
Those forcibly deported back to Sri Lanka have faced a resumption of persecution immediately upon their return. A Tamil refugee who escaped some years ago, said: “When a refugee is returned by Home Affairs to Sri Lanka, a representative of the International Organisation for Migration meets the returned person at Colombo airport.
“Sri Lanka’s Criminal Investigation Department then takes the person into custody and asks questions because the original departure from Sri Lanka was illegal. Out of fear the person will not want to tell the CID the real reason for leaving as this will impact on the person and his/her family.
“A bribe might help. The person may be bailed and then face ongoing court visits to report. However, you may not be bailed, but punished brutally, especially if your name is within their system – for being a freedom fighter in the past, or working as a social activist for the Tamil people. Your file might still be there.”
The importance of support and advocacy for Tamil refugees is greater than ever before. The Australian Government continues to deport Tamil refugees, despite the warnings of advocates, reputable refugee organisations and the United Nations Rapporteur on Human Rights.
The Australian government’s response to this inhumane treatment of refugees returned to Sri Lanka has been to praise the Sri Lankan government’s efforts to thwart any asylum seeker attempt to leave Sri Lanka. Former Prime Minister Tony Abbott “donated” two old Australian war ships to the Sri Lankan navy for this purpose.
Peter Coghlan is co-convenor of the Combined Refugee Action Group and Sue Longmore is convenor of the Queenscliff Rural Australians