Asylum denied, a penalty waits at home
Their day in court ... failed asylum seeker Rajesh was deported from Australia last week. Photo: Ben Doherty
A CRUMBLING baroque clocktower built by the Dutch in 1672 stands sentry over Negombo prison in Colombo, Sri Lanka, looking west over the Laccadive Sea.
Wedged on to a thin strip of land and surrounded by homes, the prison has had little room to expand as its business has grown.
Locals say the most substantial renovation of the past few decades has been to double the height of these walls to slow the number of escapes.
The latest batch of Sri Lankan deportees from Australia is led to court. Photo: Ben Doherty
This place, increasingly, is where the asylum journey to Australia ends. Australia has deported 750 Sri Lankans, about 650 against their will.
Not all returnees are jailed, but most are. Most of them end up here, the closest prison to Sri Lanka's international airport.
All of the 50 men - 38 Tamils and 12 Sinhalese - returned by Australia just over a week ago, on November 30, were imprisoned here. Their return, and subsequent incarceration, has become a touchstone for the asylum seeker debate in Australia.
A man is bailed from Negombo court which has been overwhelmed by immigration cases. Photo: Ben Doherty
The government says asylum seekers who are found to be, in truth, economic migrants, will be hastily returned. But the returnees maintain they have genuine claims for asylum that were ignored.
Some say they were granted just one five-minute interview to make their case and that Australia knowingly returned them to danger in their homeland.
The office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees says their case has raised "troubling concerns" over Australia's refugee assessment process, and refugee advocates allege Australia has abrogated its international responsibilities to properly investigate their claims for protection and to offer safe haven for proven refugees.
The heart of the argument, critics of the government's actions say, is not about whether these men were genuine asylum seekers; it is the allegation the men were never given the chance to prove it.
The Immigration Minister, Chris Bowen, said on Thursday that Australia's actions were ''appropriate''.
''It's a process which does make sure that where people come to Australia for economic purposes, which is being sold by people smugglers - 'You can go to Australia; even if you are eventually returned after several years you'll be able to work' - this is one of the mechanisms we are using to deal with that.''
The returned 50 were never a group. They were Tamil and Sinhalese and they had come to Australia from different parts of Sri Lanka, on different boats, for different reasons, over the past three months.
After weeks and months of uncertainty detained in Australia, they say they were woken early, just after 4am, last Friday at the National Immigration Detention Centre in Darwin.
They were taken individually into meeting rooms and told they had been ''screened out'' of Australia's refugee assessment system and were to be returned to Sri Lanka immediately.
There was no avenue of appeal available.
One of those returned, 27-year-old Rajesh, told Fairfax "they did not want to hear" his claims he faced persecution from government-allied militia in Sri Lanka.
"As far I could see they were not genuine. I spoke honestly … about my safety situation but they didn't want to accept my answers."
Independently, others have offered similar accounts.
"They woke us up early. I thought I was going for another interview, but then they just said 'you have to go back to Sri Lanka'. I had only one interview … they had already decided to send us all back," said Megaraj Suresh, a Tamil from Batticaloa who said his political activism with an opposition Tamil party had made him a target for attacks.
"They didn't do proper research or even look at my documents. They were not honest in their assessment."
From Darwin, the group was put on board a charter flight to Colombo, touching down about 3.30pm.
They were interviewed into the evening and overnight by uniformed Sri Lankan police and the criminal investigation department, then taken by bus on Saturday, to Negombo prison.
"The put us in with the murderers and the drug addicts," Mr Suresh said. "We slept on the floor in line, our bodies pressed up against each other. We could not roll over."
In another cell, another asylum seeker Balan said: "Some nights, we had to take turns sleeping because [there was] no space. One would sit up while the other slept on the ground. If you had money, you could pay a bribe to get more space.''
On Tuesday, after four days in prison, the 50 men were led the short walk from the prison to the large, but consistently overwhelmed, district court across the road.
Above the gaggle of thieves and drunks and defaulters, the court has found its business dominated by immigration cases in recent months. It is dealing with hundreds of cases of people charged with illegally leaving Sri Lanka either caught trying to flee the country by boat, or those who made it to Australia, only to be sent back.
Each morning, the court is full to overflowing with relatives anxious for news of loved ones they've not seen for months.
People caught leaving Sri Lanka, and those returned by Australia, face the same charge.
But asylum seekers intercepted by Sri Lankan authorities face far harsher treatment, Fairfax is told by Joseph Jayasinghe, a lawyer who regularly represents failed asylum seekers.
Out of the glare of international attention, they can spend months in prison, fronting court once a fortnight to be perfunctorily remanded.
The Refugee Council of Australia chief executive, Paul Power, said Australia did not know whether it was sending people back to harm.
''It would appear to me that Australia is breaching its obligations because its obligation is to give a fair hearing to somebody who raises a concern about their safety and who's requesting Australia to investigate their need for asylum … clearly, at least some of the group who was returned last Friday did make comments which would engage Australia's international obligations.''
Those returned by charter flight - judged "not to have engaged Australia's international obligations" - are released sooner, depending on their history and the interest Sri Lanka's authorities have in them.
Some spend up to a fortnight in jail, while others are released within days. The returned 50 spent three nights in prison before they were bailed, each to reappear before the same court in February or March.
If found guilty of leaving the country improperly, they will likely be fined between 50,000 and 100,000 rupees ($880 and $1760), Jayasinghe said.
Some of the 50 men told Fairfax their reason for travelling to Australia was purely economic. Sold the line by people smugglers there were good jobs for good pay in Australia, they wanted work so they could send money home to their families.
"I need a job, I can't live in Sri Lanka, I can't make enough money to feed my family here," Sajeeva said. "Now I am in debt more."
But sitting in the fading winter light outside court, Megaraj Suresh told Fairfax his debts are far from the fiercest of his problems.
He is resigned to the fact that neither he, nor his family, will ever be free from the money he owes. Suresh sold his land and his three-wheeler, pawned his wife's jewellery, and still had to borrow nearly half the 800,000 rupees ($14,087) for his ultimately fruitless passage to Australia. The debts distress him, Mr Suresh said, and he is concerned, too, about his court case. But more than that, it is the threat outside of Sri Lanka's criminal justice system that worries him.
Suresh said he fled Sri Lanka fearing political persecution. He claims he was harassed and beaten after campaigning for the opposition Tamil National Alliance in provincial elections this year.
"The CID [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 are notorious in Sri Lanka for snatching people, usually political opponents of the government, from the street or their homes.
The Sri Lankan government rejects allegations that anyone, particularly members of the ethnic minority Tamil population, faces any maltreatment. It says it is not behind the white vans.
International opinion differs: Australia told Sri Lanka at a recent UN human rights meeting it must "take action to reduce and eliminate all cases of abuse, torture or mistreatment by police and security forces … [and] all cases of abductions and disappearances".
Back in Australia, Bowen said: ''We had people who had very clearly come to Australia for economic purposes. It is completely appropriate that swift action is taken to return them to Sri Lanka.''
But troubling questions remain about what has been taking place within initial screening interviews, about which the department refuses to provide details, citing confidentiality.
Refugee lawyer David Manne, who led the successful High Court challenge against the Malaysian solution, said it appeared asylum seekers were not being given the opportunity to make their claims properly before being sent home.
''Almost without exception, longstanding practice of past successive governments in this country has allowed people coming by boat to present any claim for protection under due process before any consideration of return. Not so recently, it would appear. Again, we have the government keeping decision-making outside the reach of the law.''
Power said this could have ''dire consequences''.
''Our concern is that, in its effort to change the dynamics of people movement in the region, the Australian government may be denying the right to articulate protection claims to some people with well-founded fears of persecution. The consequences for any individual involved are likely to be dire.''