Two deportations of Sri Lankan Tamils have been averted, pending a High Court challenge to be heard in the new year giving the asylum seekers a temporary reprieve. These were to be the first deportations of people who arrived by boat under the current Labor government. Refugee Rights Action Network (RRAN) held protests outside the Perth Immigration Detention Centre (PIDC) to prevent 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,” said Rintoul.
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 IDC when one of the Tamil men, Emil was being removed to another immigration facility and the group of activists spent many hours Sunday blockading the centre and communicating with asylum seekers. RRAN visited the two men facing deportation and it became clear the government and Serco were intending to continue with the deportation irrespective of an active case 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 or the Department of Immigration and Citizenship (DIAC)from removing the Tamil asylum seekers pending the outcome of their case in February. There were loud cheers amongst 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 liberty) 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 one of the men, Vithurun to a residential facility owned by DIAC who claimed without any hint of irony that they were taking the man 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. The other man, 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 forcibly boarded onto the plane.
According to sources who've worked inside the system of mandatory detention, the trauma and torture counselling is completely ineffective and only serves as a soundboard for the refugees to relive the tragedies that they've escaped from. The biggest factor by far in terms of impacts on mental health is the indefinite terms of detention for 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 Australian people. 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 and sent a text message to activists saying “you all rock”.
Emil and Vithurun both also 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 only secured a temporary reprieve. The legal process for asylum seekers is complex and very few lawyers are willing to challenge it, particularly in W.A as much of the legal process is conducted on the east coast. Both refugees had failed the Immigration Merits Review (IMR) process and their application for protection was dismissed by the Refugee Review Tribunal (RRT).
The challenge went to the High Court after being dismissed by the Federal Magistrates Court as it had determined there was no merit in the case and that it had no legal jurisdiction to make a ruling. The challenge is that there has been a violation of procedural fairness in determining the status of both asylum seekers. Certain officers of the Merits Review Tribunal (MRT) which conducts the IMR process have systematically failed every application they've received. Both asylum seekers will remain in detention until the High Court case will be heard in February. If they lose their case they will still face deportation.
Deportation a death sentence Under pressure from DIAC some Tamil's have been “voluntarily” repatriated, 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 was "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 that had lasted for 26 years in Sri Lanka. 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 Sri Lanka 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 Whilst 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 fifty 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, activist group Tamils Against Genocide have lodged a petition in the High Court claiming the UK government has failed in its obligation to review its deportations policy in light of new torture allegations.
In a case recently referred to in a Border Agency report, Freedom from Torture documented that in 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 he was held by officials at Colombo airport and detained for three days where he was beaten stripped and his skin burned with heated metal. 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.
Switzerland has also 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 Swiss parliament against the Federal Migration Office’s stance on the issue. The lives of refugees are being bargained with as an item of expedient diplomacy and electioneering. The front-line against mandatory detention is becoming international. The refugee rights movement will have to increase its level of organisation in order to mobilise as many people as possible against the neglect of their governments.