Australian Government and Opposition should seek human rights assurances from Sri Lanka

Australia’s Foreign Minister should seek assurances that Australia’s cooperation with Sri Lanka to prevent people smuggling is not exposing asylum seekers to torture, arbitrary detention, systemic discrimination and other gross human rights violations, the Human Rights Law Centre said today. Foreign Minister Bob Carr is scheduled to travel to Sri Lanka next week, together with officials from the Department of Immigration and Citizenship, for a series of meetings on people smuggling and border security.

The Human Rights Law Centre called on Carr and the Australian delegation to ensure that respect for human rights and accountability for human rights violations are central to all discussions with their Sri Lankan counterparts.

“It was very pleasing that the Australian Government raised concerns at the UN Human Rights Council in Geneva last month about the need for the Sri Lankan Government to take urgent action to combat ongoing torture, abuse and abductions by police and security forces,” said Phil Lynch, Executive Director of the Human Rights Law Centre. “While it may be desirable to dissuade asylum seekers from making dangerous boat journeys, it is also critical that Australia provides pathways to protection for people at real risk of persecution and harm”.

The Human Rights Law Centre has serious concerns about the increased “screening out” and return of boat arrivals, particularly from Sri Lanka, before their cases have been properly assessed.

“Of course it is appropriate that Australia takes steps and measures to prevent people-smuggling, but 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,” said Mr Lynch.

Mr Lynch welcomed media reports that the Australian delegation will seek assurances from Sri Lanka that returned asylum seekers do not face persecution, but said that such assurances should be legally enshrined in bilateral agreements and arrangements between the countries. “It is well documented that asylum seekers returned to Sri Lanka from the United Kingdom have been subject to arbitrary detention, torture, rape and other serious human rights abuses. It would be a grave violation of Australia’s international obligations to return people to such harm.”

Over the last year, a number of highly credible institutions and organisations – including the US State Department, Human Rights Watch, the UN Committee against Torture and the International Crisis Group – have published reports which highlight ongoing human rights issues in Sri Lanka, including systemic harassment and discrimination against the Tamil minority. They have also highlighted the need for proper accountability for human rights violations, particularly those perpetrated during the civil war which concluded in 2009.

The Foreign Minister’s visit to Sri Lanka comes about a month ahead of a planned visit to the country by Deputy Opposition Leader Julie Bishop and Opposition Immigration spokesperson Scott Morrison, who recently re-iterated that a Coalition Government would seek to intercept and return all boats to Sri Lanka. Such a policy would be manifestly incompatible with international law.

“While not every person who comes to Australia by boat is a refugee, a significant number are. We should be scrupulously diligent about ensuring that those persons are not returned to torture or persecution; a real risk associated both with boat turn backs and with a screening out system that sidesteps due process,” said Rachel Ball, Director of Policy with the HRLC.

“The Refugees Convention had its genesis in the international community’s recognition of the catastrophic consequences that flow from closing our eyes and our borders to those in need of protection,” Ms Ball said.


For further information or comments, please contact:

Phil Lynch, Executive Director, Human Rights Law Centre – 0438 776 433

Rachel Ball, Director of Policy, Human Rights Law Centre – 0434 045 919