On 2 September 2012, the Coalition announced that, if elected, it would to pursue a bilateral treaty with Sri Lanka to provide for the return of asylum seekers intercepted at sea without assessing or determining their refugee claims. In a letter to the Deputy Leader of the Opposition, the Hon Julie Bishop MP, the HRLC said that such a treaty:
- would expose at least some asylum seekers to a real risk of torture, persecution or other flagrant human rights violations and therefore violate Australia’s non-refoulement obligations under international law;
- would be incompatible with the Convention on the Elimination of Racial Discrimination and Australia’s own Racial Discrimination Act;
- is not supported by credible evidence which shows that arbitrary arrests, detention, disappearances and even torture and extrajudicial killings remain widespread in Sri Lanka; and
- is not supported by the rate at which asylum seekers from Sri Lanka are currently accepted to have valid refugee claims by Australia.
While it is important that Australia takes appropriate steps and measures to counter and prevent people-smuggling, such measures must be compatible with international law and should seek to protect asylum seekers, not interfere with their right to seek asylum. They should never compound or expose people to further human rights dangers.
In the HRLC's view, the Coalition should resile from its announcement that it will pursue a bilateral asylum seeker returns treaty with Sri Lanka. Instead, consistent with a commitment to good international citizenship and respect for Australia’s international legal obligations, the Coalition should develop a policy to:
- substantially increase our offshore refugee intake from Sri Lanka and support the UN refugee agency to process and resettle people much more rapidly from the country and region;
- ensure that human rights concerns and safeguards are paramount in any security, intelligence, and migration cooperation with Sri Lanka; and
- suspend the deportation of any Tamil asylum seekers to Sri Lanka unless and until there is significant progress in reducing human rights violations and strengthening human rights accountability in that country.