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Asylum officials 'ignore claims'

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Ben Doherty and Bianca Hall

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Deported, and in danger?

Sri Lankans sent packing by immigration officials say they are now in peril back in homeland.

PT0M0S 620 349

ASYLUM seekers forcibly deported from Australia say the government ignored their claims of persecution, granted them only one brief interview in detention and knowingly sent them back to danger in Sri Lanka.

The United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees says their forcible deportation, and subsequent imprisonment, raises "troubling concerns" with Australia's asylum processes.

Fairfax Media met with members of the latest group of 50 men expelled from Australia - 38 Tamils and 12 Sinhalese who were deported last Friday - after they were bailed from Negombo court on Sri Lanka's west coast.

Returned Sri Lankans in Negombo.

Returned Sri Lankans in Negombo. Photo: Ben Doherty

It comes as the Australian government agreed in the High Court on Wednesday to reconsider the refugee claims of 56 Tamil men due to be deported this week.

The men had previously been ''screened out'' of the refugee process but launched a legal bid to have their claims heard.

In Negombo, Megaraj Suresh, a returned Tamil man from Batticaloa, said he had been harassed and beaten by Sri Lankan "government people" because he campaigned for the opposition Tamil National Alliance party. He has previously been jailed for his political activism but said Australia did not listen to his claim.

"I had only one interview to determine my case, they had already decided to send us back," he said.

"They didn't do proper research, they didn't care about my circumstance, or even look at my documents, they were not honest in their assessment."

A spokesman for the UNHCR in Canberra said the agency was troubled by the way Australia was processing people's claims.

''In principal, UNHCR has no objection to the return of people found clearly not to need international protection,'' he said.

''However, the first step must be a fair and accurate process to assess any protection claims that are raised.

''The current procedures raise troubling questions as to both fairness and accuracy, which we have raised with the Australian government.''

An immigration department spokesman would not respond to specific questions about screening processes, saying: ''The department does not discuss specifics of its discussions with clients.''

But he said: ''The removal of these people was consistent with Australia's non-refoulement obligations [not to return people to danger]. Since

May 2012 there has been an increasing number of people outlining that their reasons for coming to Australia were based on economic concerns. The process and then removal of people who make economic claims or who otherwise make unfounded claims for protection is consistent with Australia's obligations.''

Mr Suresh said he feared for his life and for his family.

''The criminal investigation department has my details now, the number of my house where I live, my phone number, everything,'' he said.

''I have great fear for my life. I don't know what I will do.

''I needed Australia to help me but they just sent me back to danger. Now I wait for when the white van will come for me.''

Men in unmarked white vans are notorious in Sri Lanka for snatching people, usually opponents of the government, from the street or their homes.

Rajesh, who gave only one name, said he fled Sri Lanka because of a dispute over a house with government-allied paramilitary troops. ''I spoke honestly … about my safety situation but they didn't want to accept my answers,'' he said.

Australian Tamil Congress spokesman Bala Vigneswaran said one of the men marked for return had contacted him to say he told Australian authorities he feared for his life if he returned to Sri Lanka.

Officials talked to the man ''for only five minutes'', Mr Vigneswaran said the asylum seeker told him. The man tried to tell an official he was a refugee but Mr Vigneswaran said she replied: ''No I am not here to hear all those stories, you are going.'' He said the man ''kneeled down and begged and cried and they said, 'Please leave now', and he came back [from the screening interview] after only three minutes''.

Leading refugee lawyer David Manne said: ''If Australia were to summarily expel someone without due process who had expressed fears of being persecuted that would amount to a flagrant violation and a flagrant rejection of our obligations under the Refugee Convention.

''The concern here is not that all of these people are refugees - they may or may not be - the concern is that we don't know because they have been denied basic due process.''

The Sri Lankan government denies allegations that anyone faces mistreatment. But the Australian government has acknowledged persecution continues to exist in Sri Lanka, three years since the end of the war.

At a UN human rights meeting in Geneva last month, Australia told Sri Lanka to ''reduce and eliminate all cases of abuse, torture or mistreatment by police and security forces … [and] all cases of abductions and disappearances''.

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