For newly arrived Christmas Island asylum seekers, many of whom have endured life-threatening journeys, the fear and trepidation do not end when they reach land.
The fear of drowning on the high seas, dying of thirst or being eaten by sharks is nothing compared to the pre-dawn knock on the door of their room, with barked orders from a guard to “Get ready”.
According to Shalini (all the names of asylum seekers in this story have been changed), an English-speaking Tamil asylum seeker who phoned me from Christmas Island recently, it happened to three families in detention in the space of three days, all of whom claim to have fled Sri Lanka because of torture and intimidation from the Sri Lankan military or CID.
“The guards come at 5 a.m. and tell you to pack up. They stand at the door and watch you, not letting you speak to anyone or say goodbye to friends. They then take you away”, she said.
The Tamil Refugee Council has learned that one family – a husband, wife and two children – which had been sent back from Christmas Island to Colombo last month have been persecuted and abused since they returned. A spokesman for the TRC, Aran Mylvaganam, who has been in touch with relatives of the family, said the children have been allowed to live with relatives, but the parents were taken straight to jail and kept there. “They have been bashed with brooms and wooden sticks regularly during interrogation”, said Mylvaganam.
“It is always the same mode of operation. They are accused of having links with the Tamil Tigers and are bashed and tortured until they sign something and then pay a bribe to get out of jail.”
As asylum seekers continue to come to Australia in increasing numbers, the government’s reaction has been to send many more back – often, according to lawyers and refugee advocates, after very brief interviews and no proper access to legal assistance.
These advocates describe this “screening out” process, and the failure to explain to asylum seekers their rights, especially about access to lawyers, as an illegal breach of the Refugee Convention. They say that many of these people are being deported to danger. According to Immigration Department statistics, more than 1200 asylum seekers from Sri Lanka have been sent back, at least 900 involuntarily, this year. Recent department figures also show that more than 90 per cent of arrivals by boat were assessed to be genuine in their claims for refugee status.
This puts the lie to government and opposition claims that most asylum-seekers are “economic migrants”. It also explains why the government’s much trumpeted policy of deterrence has failed to stop the boats. As advocates say, terrorised people will always opt for a leaky boat over a torture chamber or jail cell.
Mylvaganam has spoken recently to several Tamil asylum seekers on Christmas Island, who rang him to express their fears about deportation. Pari, 25, comes from Jaffna and fled after his uncle, brother and brother-in-law went missing and then he was arrested on suspicion of being part of the Tamil Tigers. He said Australian immigration officials interviewed him for 10 minutes.
“I wasn’t given an opportunity to prove that I’m a genuine refugee”, he said “At the start of the interview, the officials advised me that if I failed it, I would need to cooperate with whatever decision they make. They made me sign a paper without reading out the contents to me.” Durga is a widowed grandmother in her late 40s from Trincomalee. Her three daughters and her nine-year-old grandson are with her. She said her husband was in the Tamil Tigers before they were married. He has been missing since being taken away in a white van in 1997. She has been harassed by CID officers.
“Last year, around October, the army took two of my daughters into custody for 24 hours and sexually assaulted them. When they came another time I told my daughters to hide. They took me instead. They slapped me and beat me but they didn’t do any sexual torture. They just talked sexually to me.
“I’m very scared about my daughters’ lives if they are sent back to Sri Lanka. I have seen many people being sent back whose lives are at risk. I don’t trust the Australian government. It seems to me they are randomly sending people back without checking their background.”
The minister for immigration, Brendan O’Connor, has denied several times this year that asylum seekers with genuine claims for protection were being deported.
He has easy access to the media. Deported asylum seekers don’t.