Jake Lynch

“The toilets are only less than five metres from my tent and the smell was strong when the emptying of the toilet pits is not carried out in time, which is always the case. When there is water shortage, which is frequent, concern about how one is going to use the toilet becomes the most serious problem of the day, surpassing the problems of food, health and other major issues”.

So says a former inmate of Menik Farm, the vast internment camp where the Sri Lankan government has upwards of a quarter of a million Tamils held against their will. They were herded away from their homes in the final deadly phase of the country’s civil war, five months ago, during which, according to unofficial UN estimates, as many as 20,000 people were killed.

Her eyewitness account, reported on the Tamilnet website, reached the outside world after she secured exit from the camp by what are euphemistically referred to as “other means”: former detainees are known to have had to bribe the guards with their life savings, running into thousands of dollars, to get away.

This is what desperation feels like, and smells like. Periodic visits by “dignitaries” were marked by handouts of bread, the eyewitness records, for which the inmates would scrabble pathetically. Rations were so poor that a man went round begging for sugar to sweeten the plain black tea he was having to give his newborn; the mother was so malnourished that her breast milk had prematurely dried up. Staff from the UN High Commission for Refugees were told that Tamils were not to be given vegetables unless they could buy them from government-approved traders, busy leeching off the inmates.

These people are being persecuted, on any definition. Try this one, for instance, from Article 33 of the Refugee Convention of 1951: “No Contracting State shall expel or return… a refugee in any manner whatsoever to the frontiers of territories where his life or freedom would be threatened on account of his race, religion, nationality, membership of a particular social group or political opinion”.

Refugees are people with a well-founded fear of such persecution, on any of the five grounds named. The Tamils are being kept in the camps – deprived of their freedom – solely on the grounds of their race. If they speak out about their treatment, to UNHCR staff, for instance, they risk joining thousands of others over the years who have simply ‘disappeared’ with impunity for those responsible: so their lives are threatened as well.

It means the Tamils of Sri Lanka are entitled to seek shelter in other countries, and to have the governing authorities make a proper assessment of their claims. Given their circumstances, they have what is likely, in many cases, to be strong grounds for obtaining asylum. And sure enough, they have now acquired an obligatory matching accessory, like a badge of honour: the Philip Ruddock death-rattle.

Such people are, Australia’s former Attorney-General intones, heading for our shores in greater numbers, not because of “push factors” but because the Labor government under Kevin Rudd government has “gone soft”, notably by scrapping measures adopted by its Liberal-National (conservative) Coalition predecessor such as naval interception of “people-smugglers”, mandatory detention and the issuance of Temporary Protection Visas to successful applicants, rather than a “migration outcome”, thus limiting “consequential family reunion”.

This is the return of what Peter Manning, the eminent former television journalist turned social researcher, has called “dog-whistle politics”. Its shrill blast is intended, not for the well-heeled residents of Ruddock’s own electorate on Sydney’s Upper North Shore, but for aspirational ‘hard-working families’ in crowded marginal seats, who can, according to legend, be convinced that their space and their money are at stake in Australia extending a welcome to any new arrivals.

Base political calculations trump any semblance of evidence-based policy-making. “As an island continent, Australia is uniquely positioned”, Ruddock avers, to stem the “tide” of would-be refugees – conveniently ignoring the fact that the vast majority of asylum claims are lodged by people who have arrived by air.

Following the ‘9/11’ attacks in the US, Ruddock’s boss, former Prime Minister John Howard, went out of his way to tar asylum seekers with the brush of ‘terrorism’ – supposedly a threat to the ‘security’ of those crucial swing voters. And yet ASIO, who ran routine security checks on boat people, never found a single terrorism suspect.

The Rudd government stands accused of colluding with the Sri Lankans to keep the Tamils in the camps – anything to prevent them from reaching the airports. Bruce Haigh, the former Deputy High Commissioner in Colombo, says the Deputy Chief of the Navy went with this message, back in June, with the Prime Minister’s explicit backing: “His plea amounted to an endorsement of the continued detention of Tamils in appalling conditions”, Haigh notes. Perhaps inmates will find some distraction from the mosquitoes in glossy ads the Australian government is commissioning from Saatchi and Saatchi to discourage them from coming here to seek sanctuary.

The Foreign Minister, Stephen Smith, has expressed concern over their plight, and called for full access to appropriate international humanitarian organizations, however, when opportunities have arisen to back this up with anything more than words, Australia has been notably backward in coming forward. It did not, for example, follow the lead of the US and UK in publicly abstaining in a vote at the International Monetary Fund on a loans package for Sri Lanka, thus losing the opportunity to exert any leverage in support of its concerns.

One of the factors supposedly preventing the return of detainees to their homes is the continuing danger from landmines in the Vanni region. Foot-dragging over de-mining is a tactic employed in parallel, allegedly, with plans to instal Sinhala populations in former Tamil areas in a sinister scheme of ‘ethnic cleansing’. To avoid colluding in this, Canberra is supposedly channelling Australian help with the purchase of de-mining kit through NGOs, not the Sri Lankan government. That, at least, was the assurance given by DFAT to the newly-formed Australian Tamil Congress, but news then filtered through of officials flaunting Australian largesse as a direct handover to a government-appointed ‘task force’.  

Not the least concerning aspect of the situation is the continuing shroud of secrecy. Eyewitness accounts such as the one quoted above are routinely denigrated by Colombo as fabrications; pictures smuggled out as faked; monitoring groups such as Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch as biased. James Elder, the courageous head of UNICEF, who spoke out about the dangers of child malnutrition in the camps, was promptly expelled.

Ruddock glibly suggests that Sri Lanka should be regarded as less of a source of well-founded asylum claims now its “Tamil insurgency… appears to have been defeated militarily”. That he can get away with such poppycock testifies to the lack of ventilation in public discourse for the real issues confronting hundreds of thousands of detainees, held in conditions that are worsening as monsoon rains close in.

Australia has general responsibilities towards asylum seekers as a signatory to the Convention. Far from breaking the law, they are exercising a right under Australian and international law. And it has a special responsibility to provide for those fleeing a well-founded fear of persecution in Sri Lanka, given its complaisance in their predicament.


Associate Professor Jake Lynch is Director of the Centre for Peace and Conflict Studies at the University of Sydney.


This article originally appeared on Transcend Media Service (TMS) on 16 Oct 2009.

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