This article was written for The Guardian Australia.
The direct return of 41 Sri Lankan asylum seekers to the Sri Lankan navy signals the Australian government’s willingness to plumb new moral depths in its obsession with stopping the boats, regardless of the human cost. These actions expose the individuals involved to significant risks of serious harm, including torture.
Sri Lanka is a refugee-producing country. Historically, 90% of Sri Lankan asylum seekers arriving by boat in Australia have been found to be refugees. Even in 2012/13, when the number of Sri Lankan boat arrivals reached its peak, a majority of arrivals were found to be refugees.
Earlier this year, the UN Human Rights Council launched a war crimes inquiry into Sri Lanka’s bloody civil war. The civil war ended in 2009 but the human rights abuses continue. The same Sri Lankan security forces to which the Australian government has just delivered the asylum seekers stand accused of gross human rights abuses.
It is a violation of Sri Lanka’s migration law to leave the country, except through official ports. Most of those on board are, at a minimum, likely to be arrested and charged with illegal migration – or the more serious offence of people smuggling.
Detention is inherently dangerous in Sri Lanka. Torture and other serious human rights abuses are widespread in the custody of Sri Lankan security forces, including the police. Abusers are rarely, if ever, brought to account.
Human Rights Watch has documented 75 cases of torture in security force custody since the end of the war, including the rape of men and women. A report from earlier this year outlines horrific torture and sexual violence in Sri Lankan custody suffered by 40 Sri Lankans who fled to the UK.
In 2012, when Sri Lanka’s human rights record was reviewed by the UN, the Australian government told the Sri Lankan government to eliminate all cases of abuse, torture and mistreatment by police and security forces. Two years later, we are directly returning asylum seekers to those forces.
While most refugees from Sri Lanka are Tamils, it is a mistake to think that people belonging to the Sinhalese majority are not at risk of harm. Any critic of the government – be they journalists, human rights defenders, lawyers or opposition politicians – face serious threats to their life and personal security, including abduction, torture and enforced disappearance and death.
The simple but critically important promise at the heart of the refugee convention is that we will not return people to harm. The only way to ensure that we keep this promise is to give asylum seekers access to Australia’s normal refugee status determination process.
The extraordinary secrecy that shrouded the fate of this boat, and that of another boat with 153 or so asylum seekers, shows the lengths to which Australia is determined to prevent people from accessing that process and the rule of Australian law.
If the government was confident its process was fair and legal, it would not rely on such secrecy. Instead, it reportedly relied on an interview of only four questions, conducted on the high seas via video link, to determine these life or death issues.
Our government has returned vulnerable people into the very hands of the authorities from whom they may well have been fleeing. In doing so they not only risk the lives and safety of the returnees, but diminish Australia as a nation.
Emily Howie is the HRLC's Director of Advocacy and Research. She is on Twitter @EmilyHowie