157 Tamil asylum seekers arrived on Australian shores on Sunday, having been detained by the government on a customs boat on the high seas for four weeks. The group, who are being held at Western Australia’s Curtin detention centre, are the first boat-borne asylum seekers to arrive in the country for six months. This development serves as a blow to Operation Sovereign Borders, the government’s strategy of pushing back the boats. It also begs the question: why after weeks of stating these people would never reach Australia has the Abbott government brought them ashore?
Australian immigration minister Scott Morrison announced on Friday that the refugees were being brought to Australia to be processed by Indian consular officials, with the view of sending them to India. The Tamil asylum seekers originally set out from Pondicherry, where many had been living in refugee camps after fleeing Sri Lanka. Morrison said those that could go back to India should go back.
But Refugee Action Coalition spokesperson, Ian Rintoul, said the Australian government has brought the asylum seekers to the mainland because they agreed in the High Court not to return them to Sri Lanka, and that the Indian government has only agreed to take back Indian citizens. From what is known about the asylum seekers, he doubts there are any Indian nationals in the group. “The Indian government will have nothing to do with processing these people. It's been a fig leaf that the Australian government has used to try and hide the fact that they had no alternative but to bring them to Australia,” he said.
The asylum seekers will now have the right to apply for asylum in Australia, according to Rintoul, and they will not be sent offshore. “They will have the right to make a protection application and they will be processed,” he told VICE. “In all likelihood people who are found to be refugees will be settled in Australia.”
Announcing that the 157 asylum seekers would be brought to Australia was not the only backflip Morrison made last week. On Tuesday he granted a permanent visa to a 15-year-old boy who fled Ethiopia on a boat. This is despite previously declaring he would ignore a High Court ruling on the matter and turn the application down, enforcing this government’s stance that no permanent visas would be issued to anyone arriving by boat.
Trevor Grant, convener of the Tamil Refugee Council, sees both these about faces as a weakening of the government’s Operation Sovereign Borders policy. “Morrison knows that what he has been doing is illegal and he can't fight the laws of this land to the extent he's trying to and this is the same with the 157 asylum seekers.”
Grant believes there’s a link between an ongoing High Court case over the detention at sea of said refugees and the government’s decision to bring them ashore. “It's obvious that they’re reacting because of the High Court case. So they're trying various ways to lessen the impact,” he said. “All of these things have started to happen since the threat of the law is being held over them. It happened with the 15-year-old boy. They suddenly realised that what they were doing was probably illegal so they couldn't do it and now this seems to be the same thing.”
Hugh de Kretser, executive director of Human Rights Law Centre, is representing the asylum seekers. He said the case will focus upon the power of the Australian government to intercept people outside of its territorial waters and take them to a place outside Australia. “We say that power is limited in two ways: firstly that there needs to be a fair process around that decision and that includes giving the people a proper opportunity to be heard. The second thing is we say that that power is limited in the sense that they can't take someone back to a place where they would be directly or indirectly at risk of harm and this is bringing in the international law concept of non-refoulment.”
On whether the government has broken any international laws by keeping the asylum seekers on the boat, Dr Joyce Chia, senior research associate at the Andrew and Renata Kaldor Centre for International Refugee Law at UNSW, said they have. “If they were to return them absolutely but as it is they have broken international law, as far as we know given the secrecy, because of the inadequate screening that's occurred,” she said.
Chia also explained that the other main provision that they were breaking was: “arbitrary detention under the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights by detaining them on the boat without authorisation, without access to lawyers or any other safe guards.”
The group of Tamil asylum seekers, which includes 37 children, were kept in windowless rooms on the customs boat and were only allowed to spend three hours outside each day. Fathers were kept in separate areas from their families.
Aran Mylvaganam is a Tamil refugee, who arrived in Australia by plane as a 13-year-old unaccompanied minor in 1997. He witnessed the bombing of his school in 1995, when his brother and friends were killed by the Sri Lankan air force. After living in a refugee camp for a year, he fled Sri Lanka as, “the chances of survival were greater by escaping that country than staying there.” On arriving in Australia with no visa he was taken to Villawood detention centre. He’s disappointed in the treatment of this latest group of asylum seekers by the Australian government.
“As a Tamil, as an Australian, as a human being, I'm very disappointed with our government and the way they're handling these refugees. They should be welcomed here. Most of the refugees are from the Tamil Nadu refugee camps. They fled the Sri Lankan war. In Tamil Nadu refugees live in an open prison,” Mylvaganam said.
“I think the Australian government will get away with all these things until the people of Australia wake up to the lies.”
Mylvaganam said Tamils are fleeing Sri Lanka today as the Sri Lankan government is still carrying out atrocities despite the end of the Sri Lankan civil war in May, 2009.
The United Nations Internal Review Report estimated that in the last five months of the civil war between 40,000 to 70,000 Tamils were killed by the Sri Lankan military, while the Bishop of Mannar, Rayappu Joseph has stated that over 146,000 Tamils remain unaccounted for.
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