Sri Lanka still unsafe for Tamil asylum seekers to return

 
The Sri Lankan Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe, speaking at a press conference in Canberra together with the Australian Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull, urged asylum seekers who had fled the country to return. Prime Minister Wickremesinghe emphasized in his statement, "Come back; all is forgiven; it is quite safe in Sri Lanka; we are just starting the missing persons office.”

The Australian Tamil Congress (ATC) would like to categorically state that Sri Lanka has not reached a point where every Tamil asylum seeker can just return without worrying about the consequences; indeed Sri Lanka is far from it.

Juan Mendez, the United Nations Special Rapporteur on ‘Torture and other Cruel, Inhuman or Degrading Treatment or Punishment’, in a report released only a month ago, recommended to the international community “to ensure that the principle of non-refoulment is upheld by not returning to Sri Lanka persons, in particular Tamils, who may be at risk of torture or ill-treatment, in accordance with Article 3 of the Convention against Torture.”

The draconian Prevention of Terrorism Act (PTA) remains in force, and there have been several arrests under this law in the past year. It has been reported that many people imprisoned under PTA were forced to confess under torture, and Sri Lanka has yet to come up with concrete plans to provide redress for those unjustly detained under PTA.

Nearly eight years after the end of the war, the Sri Lankan military is still occupying significant portion of the land belonging to the Tamil people and the military intelligence and interference is ever present in day to day lives of Tamils.

Former president Chandrika Kumaratunga, the chairwoman of the Office for National Unity and Reconciliation, stated that women who were widowed during the 37-year conflict were among the victims of abuse by officials who frequently demand sexual favours just to carry out routine paperwork.

ATC acknowledges that the present Sri Lankan government has made notable reforms in governance, particularly in relation to diluting executive powers and allowing for media and civil society freedom. However, the advances on issues that are critical for the wellbeing of Tamil people – returning land occupied by the military, releasing prisoners long held in detention, tracing thousands of missing persons, and ending abuses by security forces, including torture by police – are extremely slow to non-existent.

Most Tamils fled Sri Lanka due to persecution and torture by the state.  Prime Minister Wickremesinghe’s statement addressing such people “Come back, all is forgiven’ is grossly insensitive to say the least. ATC would like to register its strong disappointment and condemnation. Such statements only reflect that even the current government has not acknowledged injustices inflicted upon the Tamil community.

ATC earnestly calls upon the Australian Government not to take any blanket measures towards Tamil asylum seekers, but to assess each individual case carefully; in particular, those with past political involvement should be assessed with extra care before decisions are taken on outcome and possible repatriation.

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