“NO WAY: YOU WILL NEVER SET FOOT IN AUSTRALIA”
The poster was glued to a wall or a column—I can’t quite remember—at Vavuniya train station in northern Sri Lanka. At the top, an outline of Australia crossed over like a no smoking sign. A small fishing vessel pictured on perilous seas below it. Bold font for the type in the middle. It was 2017, and though the elements had drained the paper of its original hues and mellowed the once dramatic contrasts, the message was still clear, even if most people in the area couldn’t read English.
The Australian government produced the posters for Operation Sovereign Borders, its militarised effort to prevent refugees claiming asylum. German neo-Nazis soon copied the design for their own anti-refugee propaganda, the German History Museum in Berlin displaying one of the specimens in a 2016 exhibition, “Anti-Semitic and racist stickers from 1880 to today”. The curators probably had no idea that they were, in effect, including contemporary Australian government material in a presentation of their own country’s odious political history.
Vavuniya seemed apt, in its own grotesque way, for the poster’s placement: the district was the site of Manik Farm concentration camp, holding more than 200,000 internally displaced Tamils in a squalor of overflowing latrines, disease, malnutrition, harassment and worse. The camp had been decommissioned five years earlier, but the northern homelands of the Tamil people were still, as they remain, littered with barracks—one of the most intense occupations in the world, following on from the military’s slaughter of tens of thousands of civilians in 2009.
Not for the Tamils have the words “Never Again” solemnly passed the lips of Australian politicians, however. “NO WAY” is the language of state here. So it has been for Priya, Nades, Kopika and Tharunicaa, a family who made home in Biloela, Queensland, but who have spent more than three years in detention fighting deportation.
Twenty years ago, the Sri Lankan security forces killed Priya’s fiancé and six others. Hands tied and truck tyres assembled around them, the men were burned alive while local villagers were made to watch. Priya’s mother was sexually assaulted in a military camp and her family was threatened. That’s why she fled, first to India, then to Australia in 2013. The government knows this. And still it says, “NO WAY”.
Nades, a former member of the Tamil Tigers, a national liberation organisation that formed a de facto administration over much of the Tamil homelands, fled for his life in 2012, well after the war had ended. Former Tigers have been targets of harassment and torture at the hands of the security forces. The government knows this. And still it says, “NO WAY”.
Kopika and Tharunicaa have never set foot in Sri Lanka. They were born here and have now spent most of their lives locked in detention. A medical report from September 2018—more than 1,000 days ago—noted emerging “behavioural disturbance” resulting from their incarceration and isolation in Broadmeadows detention centre. The government knew this. And still it said, “NO WAY”. Now Tharunicaa has been evacuated to Perth for a blood infection after being denied proper care in Christmas Island detention.
This month, as reports emerged that 22-year-old Tamil man Chandran Vithusan was beaten to death by Sri Lankan security forces in Batticaloa, judges from the United Kingdom’s Upper Tribunal rejected as unreliable the Sri Lanka country reports produced by the UK Home Office and the Australian Department of Foreign Affairs (DFAT). The 2019 DFAT report, which erroneously claims that there is no longer state-sponsored torture in the country, has been used by the Department of Home Affairs, the Immigration Assessment Authority and the Administrative Appeals Tribunal to deny Tamil asylum claims. The Australian government, referencing DFAT, claims that is it safe to return Tamils to Sri Lanka. It has now been told that the evidence used to support this conclusion is unreliable. And still it says, “NO WAY”.
“Why are you being so mean to this family?”, Sunrise host David Koch asked Home Affairs Minister Karen Andrews this morning. The obvious answer is that Australian governments for years have used refugees as a domestic political football, and the current administration is reluctant to stop now, even with a family that has won a measure of support from some conservative politicians and commentators.
No doubt that’s true. But it’s also the case that asylum claim decisions are influenced by the Australian government’s partnership with Sri Lanka, through which it provides diplomatic backing and material support to the country’s security services, from which so many have fled. In fact, the relationship was consummated on a quid pro quo: in return for Sri Lanka stopping asylum seekers from leaving the island, and for taking back those returned, Australia has defended the country against charges of war crimes.
More than 4,000 Tamils came here by boat between 2009 and 2013. In response to their pleas for sanctuary, the Labor government in 2012 introduced “enhanced screening” to make it more difficult for them to gain protection. When the Liberals were elected, the situation worsened under Operation Sovereign Borders, boats being intercepted at sea and asylum seekers handed over to the authorities from which they had fled in the first place.
“Sri Lanka’s new prime minister, Ranil Wickremesinghe, claims the Australian government’s silence on alleged human rights abuses was the price it paid to secure co-operation from the former Rajapaksa government on stopping asylum-seeker boats”, the Australian’s south-east Asia correspondent Amanda Hodge noted in 2015.
Former prime minister Tony Abbott as much as confirmed this in Quadrant online the following year. “I’m sure that the Sri Lankan president was pleased that Australia didn’t join the human rights lobby against the tough but probably unavoidable actions taken to end one of the world’s most vicious civil wars”, he wrote. “Certainly, both countries became even stronger partners in the Abbott government’s most urgent initial task: to end the people-smuggling trade.”
More than 90 percent of Sri Lankan Tamils taking their case to the Immigration Assessment Authority had their application for asylum rejected in recent years, due in part to the unreliable DFAT country reports. The Australian government is particularly reluctant to recognise the legitimate claims of persecution because it would be caught in a potentially embarrassing contradiction: providing both safe haven to Tamils and aid to their oppressors.
The human rights situation is deteriorating further under the Rajapaksa brothers, President Gotabaya and Prime Minister Mahinda, who were responsible for the mass slaughter of Tamils in 2009 and the internment camps that followed. The Australian government knows this, yet continues to provide support, most recently surveillance drones.
The Liberals will not easily give up their determination to deport Priya, Nades, Kopika, Tharunicaa and thousands of others to a country in which they face national oppression, violence and discrimination. For those thousands of Tamils living in Australia and clinging to hope, we need more people to send the government its own obstinate message: NO WAY. No way should these deportation proceedings continue. No way should these people continue to be denied their right to protection. And no way can we continue to tolerate the normalisation of policies that German neo-Nazis seek to emulate.