ASYLUM SEEKERS who were forcibly deported from Australia say the federal government ignored their claims of persecution, granting them only one brief interview in detention and knowingly sending 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.
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Deported, and in danger?
Sri Lankans sent packing by immigration officials say they are now in peril back in homeland.
Fairfax Media met members of the latest group of 50 men expelled from Australia – 38 Tamils and 12 Sinhalese who were deported on Friday – after they were bailed from Negombo court, on Sri Lanka’s west coast.
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, a returned Tamil man from Batticaloa, Megaraj Suresh, said he had been harassed and beaten by Sri Lankan ‘‘government people’’ because he campaigned for the opposition Tamil National Alliance. He was previously jailed for his political activism but, he 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 principle, 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, 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 now 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. 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.’’
Unmarked white vans, driving without number plates, are notorious in Sri Lanka for snatching people, usually political opponents of the government, from the street or their homes.
The Australian Tamil Congress spokesman, Bala Vigneswaran, said one of the men marked for return contacted him to say he feared for his life if he returned to post-war Sri Lanka.
Mr Vigneswaran said the man told him: ‘‘They talked to me for only five minutes.
‘‘I tried to tell [the official] that I am a refugee and please help me, and she said: ‘No, I am not here to hear all those stories, you are going’.’’
Mr Vigneswaran said: ‘‘And he 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 rejectionof 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 refutes all allegations that anyone, particularly the ethnic minority Tamil population, faces any mistreatment.
Immigration Minister Chris Bowen said on Thursday that reports that the group were jailed as soon as they landed in Sri Lanka were wrong.
He told ABC Radio that when people were returned, police interviewed them, in accordance with Sri Lankan law.
"I don't believe that people are jailed indefinitely," he said, adding he was satisfied that people were treated appropriately.
Mr Bowen added that he was "satisfied" that the Sri Lankan government was complying with its law and its "obligations".
The Immigration Minister also said that it was "very clear" there were people coming to Australia for economic purposes.
"It is completely appropriate that swift action is taken to return them to Sri Lanka," he said.
In response to reports that Australian officials did not properly interview another group of asylum seekers before sending them back to Sri Lanka, Mr Bowen said the government did consider what people said.
"We do consider what people tell us ... This is a very appropriate process."
with Judith Ireland