Sri Lanka Has Improved But People Still ‘Vulnerable’

Sri Lanka has improved but people still 'vulnerable'


The Age
July 7, 2010

PRIME Minister Julia Gillard's revised approach to processing applicants from Sri Lanka and Afghanistan amounted to ''racial discrimination'', according to an asylum seeker advocacy group.

While the government announced yesterday that it will lift its three-month freeze on processing asylum seekers from Sri Lanka, Ms Gillard warned that any attempt to reach Australia would likely result in people being sent back home.

Ramesh Fernandez, from the Refugee Survivors and Ex-Detainees (RISE) group, disputed the UNHCR finding that Tamils and people from Sri Lanka's north were ''no longer in need of international protection solely on the basis of risk indiscriminate harm''.

''While it is an easy way for the Prime Minister to get the Tamil people out of this country, that's not what our sources are saying,'' said Mr Fernandez, who is a Tamil who fled Sri Lanka for Australia in 2001. ''Most of the Tamils in the north are still in fear of their lives. The situation has not improved so soon over there.''

But Sri Lanka's high commissioner to Australia, Senaka Walgampaya, said that ''false stories'' were being circulated about discrimination and persecution against Tamils.

Questioned by The Age, he maintained that not a single Tamil asylum seeker had a legitimate claim for refugee status. ''Sri Lanka is a safe place for all persons,'' he said.

Sri Lanka's civil war ended more than a year ago, but the country is still grappling with the consequences of its three-decade-long ethnic conflict.

Tens of thousands of Tamils are living rough in war-torn villages in the north where the army – dominated by the island nation's Sinhalese majority – maintains tight control. Tens of thousands more Tamils remain in temporary camps, unable or unwilling to go home.

Human rights advocates in Sri Lanka agree conditions for Tamils have improved over the past year but say the situation is far from normal.

''As far as acts of violence and killings are concerned, the situation has improved,'' said Jehan Perera from the Peace Council of Sri Lanka.

''But people living in the north and east, especially those who were displaced, continue to be in a very vulnerable situation because they are living under military control in areas where community life has totally broken down People are fleeing because they are not able to live a proper life. There is a need to protect them.''

Back in Australia, Pan Theivigan, from the Tamil Youth Organisation, said about 30,000 internally displaced Tamils continue to be accommodated in ''open jails'' in the island's north and the east.

Australian Tamil Congress representative Sam Pari said if the government was to stop Tamil boat arrivals, it needed to address both foreign and immigration policies. ''The root cause of this problem is the discrimination and persecution of the Tamils,'' she said.

In Indonesia, Sri Lankan asylum seekers said they were devastated by Ms Gillard's personal message to ''not pay a people smuggler – do not risk your life only to arrive in Australian waters and find that far, far more likely than not, you will be quickly sent home by plane''.

A spokesman for the Sri Lankans in Indonesia, who asked not to be identified, said: ''This makes us very sad. Many of us have been trying to get to Australia for more than one year. Don't they know that there are still big problems for us in Sri Lanka? Tamil women are still being raped people are being detained for no reason.''