Sri Lankan religious leaders say it is too early to send asylum seekers back to the country, despite the recent change of government.
“My general view of the countries holding asylum seekers: please do not send them back immediately,” says Catholic priest and lawyer Fr Veerasan Yogeswaran. “There are positive developments. But at the same time these are not signs that everything is good and everything is democratic now.”
Last month, Australia’s minister for immigration and border protection, Peter Dutton, visited Sri Lanka for the first time since the Rajapaksa regime was defeated in January’s presidential elections.
“Australia and Sri Lanka have and will continue to work closely together to detect, disrupt and return people-smuggling ventures and combat other transnational crimes,” Dutton said.
Both Labor and Coalition governments had built strong ties with the Rajapaksa regime, in large part to stop Sri Lankans seeking to come to Australia by boat.
Refugee and human rights activists argued that it was unsafe to return Sri Lankan asylum seekers to a country that, even after the end of the bitter civil war in 2009, remained under the strong-arm rule of President Rajapaksa and his family.
Despite serious human rights concerns successive Australian governments enthusiastically returned Sri Lankan asylum seekers.
There is evidence that in doing so Australia has breached its international obligations not to return refugees to situations in which they may be persecuted.
Shortly after coming to power, Sri Lanka’s new prime minister, Ranil Wickremesinghe, said Australia was successful in getting agreement from the Rajapaksa regime to return asylum seekers to Sri Lanka because it remained silent on human rights abuses.
Yogeswaran, speaking in the eastern city of Trincomalee where he runs the Centre for Promotion and Protection of Human Rights, said the human rights situation in Sri Lanka remains unresolved and uncertain.
“The minority communities are of the opinion still that we do not feel safety and security in this island. And that is one of the reasons that they are also fleeing. There may not be abductions but there can be constant harassment and intimidations,” he said.
On the other side of the island, in Mannar, Bishop Rayappu Joseph agreed. He said the country’s criminal investigation department remained an unwelcome presence in many communities “Even now, the people are living in fear,” he said.
Both Joseph and Yogeswaran said the ongoing military presence remains a significant cause of insecurity for minority communities.
“That’s why the north and east are calling to demilitarise these areas,” Yogeswaran said. “Remove excessive army camps and remove army or armed forces’ influence over the civilian life. The government is still not addressing these issues. The government says we will not move any military settlements or military camps. And they are increasing it again, here and there. All that shows that we are living in an occupied land under intimidation and threat and therefore the people feel insecure and security is threatened. So they are not leading a normal life as the other Sri Lankans [are].”
Instead of returning asylum seekers, the religious leaders said Australia should focus on engaging with Sri Lanka on the problem of how its minority communities can live peacefully as part of the Sri Lankan nation.
The best way for Australia and other countries to stop people from Sri Lanka leaving on boats, according to Joseph, is “to involve themselves in the political formation of this country and create a situation where the people feel that they are wanted and that they are equal citizens of this country and that they can rule and develop themselves as a nation.
“Those countries must be involving themselves to get the Sri Lankan government solving this issue – a hundred year problem – the political rights of the Tamil people. This is a multinational, multiracial, multilinguistic, multicultural, multireligious country. They must accept that fundamentally in the constitution, this is the political reality of the country.”
Dutton has said Australia supported the reconciliation process in Sri Lanka. “The Sri Lankan government’s commitment to advancing democratic reforms, improving human rights and pursuing reconciliation is fundamental for Sri Lanka’s long-term stability and prosperity,” he said. -Guardian