Refugees from Sri Lanka arrive for processing at Christmas island in June.

Refugees from Sri Lanka arrive for processing at Christmas island in June. Photo: Sharon Tisdale

Who would have thought that in 17 years, Australia could have gone from being a leading champion in the global fight to end the racial discrimination of apartheid to siding with the corrupt and venal government of Sri Lanka in the genocide of Tamils. Australia has John Howard to thank, with the raw racism and political expediency embodied in, ''we will decide who comes here'', the policy of turning back boats, mandatory detention and temporary protection visas, all directed against asylum seekers. Unfortunately Labor prime ministers Kevin Rudd and Julia Gillard embraced the essence, and now the substance, of his policies.

Acting on the word of the victorious Sinhalese government, which has shown no inclination to seek reconciliation with the vanquished Tamil minority at the end of a 28-year civil war, the Australian government is sending asylum seekers back to Sri Lanka without any assessment of their claims to be refugees. They are being called economic opportunists, apparently on the basis of the town, village or area that they come from in Sri Lanka. Over the past few days, former members of the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam have been returned.

Assuming, for a moment, that asylum seekers from Sri Lanka are ''economic refugees'', there must be something dreadfully wrong with their economic circumstances to drive them onto boats for a lengthy and perilous sea journey to Australia. The alleged siren calls of avaricious people smugglers cuts no ice with those familiar with their circumstances except some federal politicians and public servants.

A survey conducted by Essential Research on December 3 found only 5 per cent of respondents believed Gillard was principled on the issue of asylum seekers and 8 per cent with respect to Tony Abbott. On the other hand, 39 per cent saw Gillard as playing politics and 42 per cent saw Abbott as similarly engaged.

The fact is asylum seekers arriving from Sri Lanka by boat are not economic refugees; if they are Tamil they are fleeing the country because they are members of an oppressed minority and, if they are Sinhalese, they are fleeing because they have run afoul of an oppressive state. More than 40 Sri Lankan journalists have been killed in the past 10 years for trying to expose corruption in government, and the unlawful abduction and killing of Tamils and other opponents of the regime. Sri Lanka is at the bottom of the international pile in terms of press freedom and the rights of minorities.

The crushing of the Tamil separatists was bankrolled by the Chinese, who have built a large naval base on the west coast of Sri Lanka with the capacity to threaten sea lanes in the Indian Ocean. They are in the process of turning Sri Lanka into a vassal state and lining pockets along the way to do so. Sri Lanka would be bankrupt were it not for the Chinese, who have internal stability as their price. A program to eliminate the Tamils will not bring that about.

Australia has become complicit in the genocide of Sri Lanka's Tamil minority. Asylum seekers that arrive in Australia are being given no opportunity to make a statement of claims. Acting on the advice of the Sri Lankan government, they are being returned to Sri Lanka on the basis that they have no claims. Any claim they make is regarded as spurious. On November 30, 50 were woken at 3am at the Northern Immigration Detention Centre in Darwin, taken to an interview session - where their claims were rejected - and then put on a charter flight back to Sri Lanka. Their bags had been packed in their absence. On arrival, all were detained and sent to Negombo Prison, where returnees are regularly mistreated and beaten. Another 500 men are awaiting return at the detention centre.

On Friday, the deportation of another 56 men was halted by Ian Rintoul of the Refugee Action Coalition and Dr Bala Vigneswaran of the Australian Tamil Congress, who sought and gained an urgent injunction from the High Court. The matter will be heard on Thursday, where the minister will be required to demonstrate the processes employed to screen the applicants.

Six hundred Sri Lankan asylum seekers have been removed from Australia since August. Refugee advocates refer to what is occurring to the asylum seekers as refoulement.

Refoulement is against Australian and international law. It occurs when a state or organisation returns an asylum seeker or refugee to a place, ''… where his (sic) life or freedom would be threatened on account of his race, religion, nationality, membership of a particular social group or political opinion''. The avoidance of refoulement is a basic tenet of refugee law. Australian lawyers and people of conscience should be up in arms. How low have political imperatives driven both major parties as they scrabble for votes at the bottom of the barrel? The issue for Australians to ponder is this; the object of cruel political expediency may be people without citizenship at the moment, but how long will it be before some among us might be declared a threat to state security and targeted and persecuted for perceived political gain. Given what is occurring at the moment, it is not much of a jump.

The Sri Lanka cricket team are touring Australia until January 28. The season kicks off in Canberra and includes Tests in Hobart, Melbourne and Sydney, plus one-day games. There was a time when Australia boycotted sport, in particular cricket, with countries that abused human rights, including South Africa and Zimbabwe. Why are we playing cricket with Sri Lanka?

Bruce Haigh is a former diplomat and political commentator. He served in Sri Lanka and was a member of the Refugee Review Tribunal.