A solitary protester aboard a Qantas flight yesterday successfully prevented the transfer and possible deportation of a Tamil asylum seeker. Jasmine Pilbrow, a 21-year-old refugee advocate, bought a ticket for the flight when she discovered the 25-year-old Tamil man was to be transferred on it, and refused to take her seat until he was removed. Pilbrow later left the flight voluntarily along with the asylum seeker.
It seems two other passengers also joined the protest after an advocate group distributed fliers to those on the flight. All three passengers were taken off the plane with the asylum seeker and didn't return. The Tamil Refugee Council has confirmed with VICE that the man has been told he will not be transferred for the time being at least.
Aran Mylvaganam, the group's spokesperson, told VICE that the Department of Immigration regularly transports asylum seekers to the Northern Territory capital of Darwin first before deporting them, which has happened to hundreds of Tamils already. The group is concerned the man will face persecution if he is returned to Sri Lanka due to his previous encounters with that country's army. "If he is deported back he will be tortured by the Sri Lankan army," Mylvaganam says. "He has records with them."
It is believed the asylum seeker has been living in Australia since 2012 on a bridging visa after fleeing Sri Lanka by boat, but was recently denied refugee status by the Refugee Review Tribunal. The asylum seeker said many Tamil men in Sri Lanka are "routinely taken away by security forces in 'white vans' to jail and torture." He believes his name is still on army records after he was arrested and questioned in 2011. "Sri Lankan intelligence never forgets you," the man told the Refugee Action Collective. "If I'm sent back, there's every chance I will be tortured."
The protest began on Sunday night when Mylvaganam caught wind of the plans to transfer an asylum seeker from the Maribyrnong Detention Centre in Melbourne to Darwin and organized for about 14 people to camp outside the facility. After police dispersed the protesters at 4:30 AM on Monday, the group followed authorities to Tullamarine Airport and searched for three hours before finding his flight.
They then gave out fliers to other passengers on the flight, describing the situation and urging them to take action to prevent the transfer. "If passengers on the flight insist that they consider the flight unsafe and are not willing to travel with the asylum seeker on board, this will stop the deportation," the flier read. Pilbrow, a member of the group, eventually bought a ticket for the flight and boarded it along with the Tamil man.
"Once everyone was seated on the plane I stood up, and when they asked me to sit down I spoke to the other passengers and encouraged them to also take a stand," Pilbrow says. She says two passengers joined in with the protest, and many other offered their encouragement. When members of the Australian Federal Police were called onto the flight 50 minutes later, Pilbrow said she would leave voluntarily if the asylum seeker was also taken away.
This appears to be what happened, and the Refugee Action Collective is now running a crowd funding campaign to pay for the tickets of the passengers who chose to leave the flight. Pilbrow is an asylum seeker advocate who regularly visits detention centres in Victoria, and said she is "freaked out" about the prospect of Tamil asylum seekers being sent back to Sri Lanka.
This isn't the first time a planned asylum seeker transfer has been prevented by protests, in 2014 eight passengers on board an Air China flight refused to sit down until a handcuffed Chinese asylum seeker was removed. The man, Wei Lin, remains in the country and is living in Villawood Detention Centre.
The Tamil Refugee Council is now considering legal options and other avenues to prevent the deportation of the man. "He has been informed that he will not be transferred for the time being, but we are keeping an eye on him," Mylvaganam explains. "We now have more time."
"It was a happy ending, it was a very successful demonstration," he says of the protest. "It shows how caring the people of Australia are."
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