At a time of bipartisan support for renewing the Pacific Solution, it is deeply disturbing to see the asylum seeker issue taking a turn for the more extreme. In a world of dog-whistle politics, it appears that further punishing victims is acceptable if it can score domestic political points.
Despite the opposition’s success in the government adopting its Pacific Solution, Deputy Opposition Leader Julie Bishop’s call to return Sri Lankan asylum seekers to Sri Lanka without processing their claims reduces policy debate to moral abandonment. Backing her, Opposition Leader Tony Abbott has displayed either ignorance or denial of the facts on the ground in Sri Lanka and Australia’s legal obligations.
Ms Bishop’s claims that most Sri Lankan asylum seekers are economic refugees and many pose a security risk are untested. Her claims also assume it is possible to divorce material need from fears for personal safety, while adopting the ‘‘security’’ view from one side of a conflict in which all parties behaved viciously.
Being a Tamil in Sri Lanka has for decades meant being politically and economically marginalised. Speaking out about this marginalisation continues to invite the clear threat of torture, ‘‘disappearance’’ or death. Even non-Tamil Sri Lankans, appalled by their country’s slide into a brutal authoritarianism, face serious threats if they speak out. Sri Lanka’s once vibrant media struggles under the weight of censorship and threat.
Mr Abbott’s claim, justifying his support for his deputy, that the civil war in Sri Lanka is over, is correct. But it has been the outcome of the civil war that now drives people to flee Sri Lanka.
Some Sri Lankan asylum seekers who do manage to get their claims processed may be rejected. But in at least some cases that rejection has been based on information provided by the Sri Lankan government, which asylum seekers are intending to flee.
Even if some Sri Lankan asylum seekers are held to not be ‘‘legitimate’’, many others are and would otherwise be found to have well-founded grounds for fearing persecution. The proposed policy intends to return them all into the arms of a regime that has been found by Human Rights Watch to arbitrarily arrest and torture returnees.
Since the end of the war, in which an estimated 40,000, mostly civilian, Tamils were killed by government forces, Sri Lanka has descended into a militaristic authoritarianism and routinised ethnic repression. The arbitrary execution of suspected Tamil Tiger sympathisers has continued, now declined from wholesale revenge to routinised killings and ‘‘disappearances’’.
The Tamil north of Sri Lanka remains under military occupation with, according to the Catholic Diocese of Jaffna, thousands of Tamils permanently displaced from their homes and livelihoods, with scarce employment reserved for government sympathisers.
The Sri Lankan army continues to operate ‘‘black sites’’, where anyone suspected of opposing the Rajapaksa regime can be held without judicial process, interrogated and tortured. According to Amnesty International earlier this year: ‘‘Hundreds of people languish in arbitrary, illegal and often incommunicado detention in Sri Lanka, vulnerable to torture and extrajudicial execution, despite the end of the country’s long conflict.’’
In relation to Sri Lanka’s culture of impunity, Amnesty said: ‘‘Human rights abuses of all types go uninvestigated and unpunished.’’
Anyone fortunate enough to be released from detention in Sri Lanka remains under continual surveillance and may be re-abducted. As a result, many of those who have been released try to flee Sri Lanka.
As a key part of its punishment of dissent, the Rajapaksa regime has from the outset sought to stop its political opponents – and victims - from fleeing Sri Lanka. It has been more than happy to assist Australia in denying asylum seekers refuge elsewhere, not because of the risks they face but because they might actually make it.
That returning of asylum seekers to Sri Lanka prior to processing violates Australia’s legal commitment as a signatory to the UN’s Refugee Convention.
The fact Sri Lanka is not a signatory to the convention further contradicts the Coalition’s own objection to the government’s proposed ‘‘Malaysia solution’’.
But perhaps, as the government improves slightly in the polls and an opposition hungry for power sees it move slightly further away, there are fewer restrictions on political expediency. The pity of it is, though, that it is real people who will pay the very high human price of such expediency.