Tamils Face Return In UN Review

Tamils face return in UN review

By Paul Maley
The Australian, April 9, 2010

Hundreds of Tamil asylum-seekers could be sent home if new UN guidelines reflect Sri Lanka's improved humanitarian situation.

Yesterday, Sri Lanka's ambassador to Australia, Senaka Walgampaya, said Colombo expected the UN High Commissioner for Refugees guidelines, currently under review, will soften its assessment of the country.

The review prompted the co-ordinator of the Refugee and Immigration Legal Centre, David Manne, to warn against making 'dangerously premature' judgments about returning Tamils.

'Governments like Australia have sometimes seized on revised guidelines to prematurely return people to the same dangers they faced in the past,' Mr Manne said.

The warning came as an analysis of unauthorised boat arrivals to Australia revealed Sri Lankans accounted for just 20 per cent of the total number of asylum-seekers.

The Department of Immigration figures undermine the Rudd government's claim that the fallout from Sri Lanka's civil war, which ended last May following the defeat of the Tamil Tigers, was one of the main factors driving refugees to Australia.

According to the numbers, a total of 4529 asylum-seekers arrived in Australia by boat in 2009 and 2010. Of those, 945 — or 20 per cent — said they were Sri Lankan. By contrast, 2506 asylum-seekers — or 55 per cent of the total — hailed from Afghanistan.

Yesterday, Mr Walgampaya said Sri Lanka expected the UNHCR guidelines, which effectively presume Tamils in the country's north should be considered refugees, to be changed. 'I believe they're trying to do it now, yes,' he said.

'There is no reason for anybody to seek refuge in Australia.'

Mr Walgampaya's confidence was backed by Ramesh Jayasingha, the permanent secretary to Sri Lanka's Minister for Foreign Affairs. 'There is a very steady and sustained return to normalcy in Sri Lanka and that is something obviously the international community would be cognisant of,' he said.

But Mr Jayasingha warned a tougher refugee assessment would not necessarily have any bearing on the number of Sri Lankans fleeing by boat.

He said the asylum-seeker pipeline to Australia was driven by organised criminals, some of whom were 'linked' to terrorism.

UNHCR regional head Richard Towle yesterday confirmed a revision was under way, although he would not say when it would be issued. 'The revisions will reflect our assessments of the country conditions in Sri Lanka' Mr Towle said, adding that revising country assessment was 'standard practice'.

UNHCR country assessments are one of the principal tools used by the Immigration Department to make refugee determinations.

In March, Mr Towle said there had been 'positive changes' in the humanitarian situation in Sri Lanka, although there remained a 'long way to go'.

Mr Manne agreed it was likely the UNHCR would issue a more 'nuanced' assessment of northern Sri Lanka. 'Given recent indications by the UNHCR that would appear the likely trajectory.'

The Immigration Department figures also reveal a strikingly high success rate for Afghan asylum-seekers, with not a single Afghan having being deported following an unsuccessful claim.

By contrast, a total of 80 Sri Lankans have been removed since the beginning of 2009.

The stream of asylum-seekers has strained facilities on Christmas Island. Yesterday there were 2055 people in the detention centre, which has a capacity of 2040. A further 125 asylum-seekers intercepted by authorities were en route to the island.