Sri Lankan Asylum Seekers Declared Refugees

Sri Lankan asylum seekers declared refugees

By Alison Caldwell
ABC News

Posted Wed Sep 12, 2007 7:19pm AEST
Updated Wed Sep 12, 2007 8:53pm AEST

Seventy-two Sri Lankans who have been held in detention on the Pacific island of Nauru for more than six months have been granted refugee status by the Immigration Department.

But that does not mean they will be able to live in Australia.

As with those asylum seekers who arrived on the Tampa in 2001, these men will now have to wait on Nauru as the Federal Government casts around for another country which is prepared to take them.

Many of the young Tamils went on a hunger strike for six days last week, ending it after the Immigration Department said they would have an answer for them by the the end of this week.

The men were among 83 asylum seekers who were intercepted on their way to Australia in February. One other man has been refused refugee status.

Since then they have been held on Nauru while the Immigration Department assessed their refugee status.

'Economic refugees'

The Sri Lankan Government branded them “economic refugees” and demanded Australia return them back to their war torn country.

David Manne is the coordinator of the Refugee and Immigration Legal Centre in Melbourne. He represents some of the men.

“The have rightly been recognised as genuine refugees and that's unsurprising because they've got strong and compelling claims for protection from brutal human rights abuses in Sri Lanka, which they've fled from and can't go back to,” he said.

“The fundamental problem is even though they've been found to be genuine refugees there's no guarantee of resettlement to safety and security at all.”

The Federal Government is now looking for a third country to take the 72 Sri Lankans who have been found to be refugees. Until then, they will remain on Nauru.

Mr Manne says the situation is intolerable.

“What's clear is there is no probable plan or process which guarantees our clients a timely resettlement outcome, so they can be resettled in safety and security quickly,” he said.

Refugee swap

The Federal Government initially considered sending the Sri Lankans back to Indonesia, the country that was their departure point on their way to Australia.

But Indonesia indicated it would simply send them back to Sri Lanka and that would have put Australia in breach of its international refugee obligations.

In April, the Australian and US governments announced a deal allowing the two countries to exchange refugees.

That raised the prospect of the Sri Lankans going to the USA in exchange for Guantanamo Bay detainees being settled in Australia.

Labor's immigration spokesman Tony Burke says the Federal Government has mishandled the situation from the start.

“Labor never would have taken them to Nauru. These individuals were intercepted off the coast of Christmas Island, they were taken by the Government to a purpose-built immigration processing centre on Christmas Island and still the Government, having spent hundreds of millions of dollars on that centre, refused to use it and took the expense of flying them across to Nauru to do the same processing at greater expense there,” he said.

“Nauru is now a six-year-old stunt. The truth is, of the people who have been resettled in Nauru, more than 1,000 have been resettled either in Australia or in New Zealand, where they subsequently get access to come to Australia. Fewer than 50 have been settled in Europe or North America.

“A durable solution has to be found. And in many cases that would be Australia. The only alternative to Australia that the Government seems to be proposing is to revive the bizarre refugee swap with the United States.

“If that's their answer then Australia simply becomes a magnet and a pathway for anybody wanting a green card.”

For this story, Immigration Minister Kevin Andrews was not available to speak to the ABC.


The 72 Sri Lankans had been in detention on the Pacific island of Nauru for more than six months. (File photo) (Reuters: Mark Baker)
Audio: Sri Lankans get refugee status but future still in doubt (PM)