Australia is facing increasing scrutiny from the United Nations (UN) over its proposed treatment of refugees in response to its handling of Tamil asylum seekers from Sri Lanka. According to the Australian Broadcasting Corporation, 153 Tamil asylum seekers are en route to or already have been transferred to the custody of the Sri Lankan Navy. The current Australian policy, “Operation Sovereign Borders,” is seen by the UN as at odds with international law regarding the treatment of refugees and asylum seekers.
Australian Foreign Minister, Julie Bishop, has expressed that she sees Australia as abiding by their international obligations but are hesitant to be more open to refugees in fear of seeing refugees “drown at sea as happened in the past.” Current international law regarding refugees indicates no one can be returned involuntarily to a country where “he or she has a well-founded fear of persecution.” While Australia’s foreign policy seems to technically abide by this edict and states that asylum seekers will not be returned to their home countries when a “real chance” of harm exists, Australian Immigration Minister, Scott Morrison has introduced a bill to raise the bar and force refugees to prove their chance of harm is greater than 50 percent.
Australia has further justified their deportation of Tamil refugees back to Sri Lanka by repeating that Sri Lanka is a country at peace and its citizens have no legitimate fear of persecution as a result. Sri Lanka has seconded this opinion by stating publicly that the country has been at peace since the ceasefire in 2009 and that the only reason anyone would have to leave Sri Lanka is purely economic. Sri Lanka High Commissioner Admiral Thisara Samarasinghe said further that other refugees who have returned to Sri Lanka are now “leading a normal life” and experience “no harassment.’ The Tamil Refugee Council sees things differently. Spokesman Aran Mylvaganam indicates that at least 11 of the 153 on board the boat being returned to the Sri Lankan Navy have been arrested and tortured by Sri Lankan intelligence forces. He believes the odds of these refugees remaining safe after Australia turns them over to Sri Lankan authorities are slim, and the UN seems to agree with him.
The United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, António Guterres, indicates that Australia’s difficulty seems to be restricted to refugees traveling by boat to Australia to seek asylum. Australia has not seemed to have problems with refugees who apply for asylum status from overseas and request visas in advance, but those who travel by boat are less readily accepted. Additionally, offshore processing centers have been established where refugees could be held while their case for asylum is reviewed by Australian authorities, which would seem to make speedy returns of refugees to Sri Lanka unnecessary. Guterres sees recent actions as inconsistent with Australia’s good record regarding refugees until now.
The fact that in as many months, three Tamil refugees on temporary visas in Australia who were facing the possibility of being returned to Sri Lanka deliberately set themselves on fire seems to indicate there are more than just economic reasons involved in this crisis. In order for the international community to be appeased, however, it seems that the UN is in an odd position where it must, rather than side with one country or another, side with the refugees against both Australia and Sri Lanka.
By David Morris