What happens to 153 Sri Lankan asylum seekers held by
Australia in a prison ship on the high seas will reflect starkly on the
character of our nation for years to come, writes Victoria
IT IS IMPOSSIBLE to properly consider the recent drama played out on the high seas and in the courts regarding the fate of Sri Lankan asylum seekers without reflecting on the horrors of what occurred in the dying days of that country’s
As a consistent visitor to the internment camps detaining people who
arrive seeking protection, I noted with a rising sense of dread – as did
my colleagues – the wounded and the maimed we began to meet there in
late 2009, early 2010. At times, the visiting space had more the
ambiance of a casualty unit then an immigration detention centre. We
got to know the legless, the armless, the shrapnel ridden brought to
Perth IDC from other more remote centres for what passed for medical
I sat with grown men sweating in pain from terrible injuries
inflicted months, or even a year, earlier. I met men with chunks of
metal still visibly extruding from their bodies, or their scalps, months
after arrival on Australian soil. And I thought then that about the
cruellest thing I could witness was the mere dulling of their pain
during their interminable wait for medical treatment with the ubiquitous
Over time, I came to understand the terrible war crimes committed against the Tamil people in the government declared “no fire zones”, where civilians and even hospitals were relentlessly shelled with heavy artillery,
and over 40,000 are said to have died after being encouraged to shelter
in those very zones. The disappearances, the torture, the ethnic
cleansing continues to this day — a veritable catalogue of government
The savage civil war
certainly saw grotesque abuses by both sides. But having won the war,
the government’s ongoing pogroms against the remaining civilian
populations have been termed by some observers as the first genocide of the new century.
The recent drama that played out in Australia’s “contiguous waters” can only be understood against the backdrop of the crimes against humanity that the Sri Lankan government is perpetrating to this very day.
Despite the disingenuous comments by Tony Abbott that Sri Lanka is a nation at peace,
the truth for anyone that cares to investigate the matter is that it is
still a nation riven by conflict and ethnic and political tension that
the surrender of the LTTE (Tamil Tigers) in 2009 has dampened, but hardly eliminated. Government opponents still disappear with disturbing regularity when the infamous white vans arrive at family homes, businesses, or news outlets. Indeed, over 26 journalists have disappeared and over 80 have gone into exile in the years since the end of the civil war
It is this nation Scott Morrison appears determined to return desperate Sri Lankan asylum seekers to, much to the dismay of refugee advocates.
Like others familiar with the human rights situation in Sri Lanka, I
was incredulous that entire ships full of desperate people could be summarily handed over to their persecutors.
It is clear that the government had no interest in the fate of any of
those they are determined to return. The mantra of “stop the boats”
predominates, superseding any consideration of law or decency. The
consequences of arrest, torture or even death of those now in Australian
custody is sacrificed in the interests of the single-minded pursuit of a
narrow policy objective that this government has set itself: to stop
the boats regardless of the costs.
That this is done under a veil of secrecy serves one purpose. Not, as
Scott Morrison claims, to foil the people smugglers, but rather to keep
people – such as the 153 men women and children on the customs ship –
out of the reach of Australian law.
Advocates and human rights lawyers worked tirelessly over the weekend
to get the necessary names and authorities to be able to mount a
challenge to the government’s actions.
The seizure, detention and refoulement of these asylum seekers
abrogated international law, but with no compellable mechanisms that
fact was of little practical utility for preventing their transfer to
the Sri Lankan authorities.
Urgent injunctions against the transfers were filed and the High Court under Justice Susan Crennan
decided that the matter was of such legal significance it must be heard
by the full bench of the High Court. Under scrutiny will be the
egregious practice of “enhanced screening” (rather than actual
refugee claims assessment) and the legality of the “Operation Sovereign
Borders” regime. The hearings are expected to last for weeks.
Meanwhile the fate of the 153 people held hostage
aboard an Australian customs vessel remains uncertain, while those
already handed back, from the second boat intercepted by the Australian
authorities, are said to be facing criminal charges in Sri Lanka.
The legal and technical issues will be argued out beginning this Friday in the courts.
And all the while, a little girl will look out at us
from the photo supplied by her relatives — a little girl whose life is
being decided by government expediency and an irresistible impulse to
pander to the worst impulses of our society. The relatives have pleaded
for no harm to be done to their baby. Neither Scott Morrison nor the
courts will heed that plea. The former will only listen to the dictates
of cynical political expediency. The later will decide based on the
narrow and technical elements of law.
It may not yet be a legal precedent as such, but the injunction
ruling and the post-injunction hearing by Justice Crennan may have
already set a precedent the refugee movement has been seeking. That
there are legal limits to the power of the Minister for Immigration.
What we are now left with is a simple question: not is the return of persecuted people to their persecutor just, or decent, or moral (because we already know that answer), but simply is it legal?
And like those doomed souls on the German Ocean liner the St Louis
, who in 1939 desperately sought, but did not receive asylum, 153 men
women and children wait out on the high seas for safety, freedom, and
justice. Their fate will reflect starkly on the character of our nation
for years to come.
Victoria Martin-Iverson is a leading campaigner for the Refugee Rights Action Network.
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