Australia's Christmas gift to the Sri Lankans
That was our generous Christmas present to many of the about 500 Sri Lankans who arrived before the excision of half of Australia's coastline - and consequently they live in the community instead of in Baxter, but just with our infamous Living Under The Bridges Visa. And it was before Sri Lanka was devastated by a tsunami.
As Sarah Stephen wrote in Green Left Weekly, "...most of those on bridging visas have had their claims refused at every level of appeal, and are required to report monthly, even weekly, to immigration department offices to get their visas renewed. There has been a characteristic unwillingness by successive immigration ministers to exercise their discretion and grant Sri Lankans the right to stay on compassionate or humanitarian grounds."
But now, the devastating earthquake and the subsequent tsunami ripped away their home. The devastation in Sri Lanka is worse than in any other of the many countries hit by the disaster, and we think it's about time the minister for immigration faces up to the facts and commits herself to some humanity.
Sri Lankan refugees received Christmas Eve removal lettersProject SafeCom Inc.
Tuesday December 28 2004 07:00am WST
For Immediate Release
"In an unbelievable and cruel collision of government manipulation and geologic reality, many Sri Lankans (figures could well be in the hundreds) living in the Australian community on BVE's or Bridging Visas, are believed to have received their final notice to remove themselves from the Australian continent within 28 days, back to their homes in Sri Lanka," according to reports received by refugee advocacy group Project SafeCom.
The asylum seekers, who arrived in Australia before the "excision legislation" and well before the enactment of the TAMPA laws, are not in detention centres, but have awaited their fate for years whilst living in the community. There are about 500 Sri Lankans in the community, the majority of them Tamils, but there are also Sinhalese families. Many of them are families with children born in Australia over the last ten years. Recently a spokesman for the Victorian Tamil Cultural Association, Mr Nagamuthu Ramalingam Wickiramasingham, commented on their situation, and compared their predicament to the situation of the East Timorese refugees in Australia. Successive governments have avoided taking responsibility for their fate up till now.
The Sri Lankans' final claims for humanitarian intervention by the Minister have now failed, and "as we now well know, the Department of Immigration has again acted manipulatively by sending these letters during the Christmas holidays - while lawyers are well out of reach and on leave and less likely to act for their clients prior to the 28 days required to leave the country, or be locked up in immigration detention," Project SafeCom spokesman Jack Smit said today.
"For some or many, the letters may well have arrived on Monday or Tuesday, after the news about the devastating earthquakes and the subsequent tsunamis had become common knowledge in the community."
"Now a tsunami has come in the way of the Minister's determinations, and she could now immediately overturn these "Christmas present" decisions and grant them all humanitarian and permanent visas, just as she could now grant asylum to the fifteen men in the Baxter detention centre. Today is an opportunity for Immigration Minister Vanstone to show, loud and clear to all Australians, that she has a heart and that she can act with compassion."
"The men in the Baxter detention centre centre are also concerned for the wellbeing of their relatives and friends in Sri Lanka. Although highly unusual, the two groups of men, some from Sinhalese and some from Tamil background, have spoken together in the Baxter centre to discuss the tsunami and the devastating loss of life in their home country."
Earthquake Foreign Aid starts at home in BaxterProject SafeCom Inc.
Monday December 27 2004 14:00pm WST
For Immediate Release
"Foreign Aid for inhabitants of the devastated regions in several countries, including the Tamil region in Sri Lanka, can start at home, in the Baxter detention centre", refugee lobby group Project SafeCom said today.
"Tens of thousands of Sri Lankans in the Tamil region of that country have been left homeless and their communities have been devastated as a result of yesterday's earthquake and its associated tsunamis."
"In Sri Lanka proper the toll is even higher, and TV New Zealand reports that the "Sri Lankan government declared a national disaster and made its own appeal for aid following the tsunami, which has killed more than 3,500 Sri Lankans and displaced around 750,000 more."
"The about fifteen Sri Lankans in the Baxter detention centre have no home to go to, if ever they did, and the devastations of the disaster provides an opportunity for the Immigration Minister Amanda Vanstone to provide relief to the Sri Lankans in Baxter, in addition to extend some generosity to the hundreds of Sri Lankan asylum seekers, many of them "living in Australia without the right to work, Medicare or government benefits", as Green Left Weekly recently reported."
"The most appropriate gesture would now be to grant all Sri Lankans permanent residency under Australia's humanitarian program. The current circumstances certainly would make such an act desirable, and it would be supported by all Australians."
The General Secretary of the Victorian Tamil Cultural Association, Nagamuthu Ramalingam Wickiramasingham, recently reported that there are about 500 Sri Lankans in the Australian community, and that no known moves were underway by the immigration minister to take any other action than to try to get them deported.
Sri Lankans' asylum appeals failThe Age
By Fergus Shiel
January 3, 2005
Sri Lankan asylum seekers face imminent deportation to their stricken homeland or detention after the failure of final appeals to Immigration Minister Amanda Vanstone.
Refugee advocates say many Sri Lankans living in the community on E-class bridging visas received letters effectively giving them 28 days to make arrangements to leave Australia.
Victorian Tamil community spokesman Nagamuthu Wickiramasingham told The Age that the asylum seekers' plight was desperate, as they had no means and nothing to return to.
"Their situation is very, very bad. Sri Lanka has been crushed by the tsunami, 1 million are homeless, tens of thousands are dead and the economy is in ruins," he said. "On top of that, the Tamils among the asylumseekers who have received final notice, face probable detention, interrogation and treatment as traitors if they're sent back.
"Really, it is an impossible situation for the affected families, all of whom have been here for more than seven years and many of whom include children that have never been to Sri Lanka."
He added that Tamil areas in north-east Sri Lanka had been hit very hard by the tsunamis and were calling for emergency relief.
Pamela Curr, campaign co-ordinator with the Asylum Seeker Resource Centre in West Melbourne, called on Senator Vanstone to provide the Sri Lankans with humanitarian visas.
She said more than 500 Sri Lankans on bridging visas were being cared for by community and church groups, as they were unable to work or receive Centrelink payments.
Jack Smit, of the refugee advocacy group Project SafeCom, said Senator Vanstone should also grant asylum to 15 Sri Lankan men being held in the Baxter detention centre.
An Immigration Department spokeswoman said last night that anyone from an area affected by the tsunamis who wished to extend their stay in Australia temporarily should contact the department.
Link to The Age
Eyewitness report from the Sri Lanka tsunamiBy Roland Buerk, BBC News, Sri Lanka
BBC News | South Asia
27 December 2004
I'm in a town called Unawatuna, which is on the south coast of Sri Lanka.
We didn't feel the earthquake here so there was no warning at all.
Then at about 10:00 this morning our time a huge wave suddenly hit the beach.
We were still in bed in a ground floor room right on the beachfront when we suddenly heard some shouts from outside.
Then the water started coming under the door. Within a few seconds it was touching the window.
We very quickly scrambled to get out as the windows started to cave in and glass shattered everywhere.
We swam out of the room neck deep in water, forcing our way through the tables and chairs in the restaurant and up into a tree.
But within about 30 seconds that tree collapsed as well and we were thrust back into the water where we had to try and keep our heads above the water line.
We were swept along for a few hundred metres, trying to dodge the motorcycles, refrigerators, cars and other debris that were coming with us.
Finally, about 300m inshore, we managed to get hold of a pillar, which we held onto until the waters just gradually began to subside.
Other people though weren't so lucky.
One elderly British gentleman was walking around in a state of shock. His wife had been swimming when the waves struck.
And a family has just walked past carrying a very small bundle with pale white feet poking out the bottom of it.
As they walked past, the teenage son, wearing an England football shirt said in a very matter of fact way "My brother is dead".
Looking around it's easy to see that this has caused incredible devastation here. There are cars in trees, buildings destroyed.
But it is impossible really to get an accurate picture of the number of casualties from where I am.
I haven't looked around a great deal yet, and I certainly haven't been inside the ruins of the hotel or other buildings, or joined in the digging.
But in one small area of one small village I have seen four bodies so far, including two Sri Lankans - an elderly lady and a young woman - and the Western boy who looked to be about five years old.
There are no kind of emergency services here, there are no helicopters thumping through the sky to come to save people.
It is a do-it-yourself rescue.
People are trying to go through the buildings and rescue those who might be trapped.
Most people have gone up onto higher ground, fearful of another tidal wave - rumours are that another one might be coming and people are trying to get up onto the hills.
There are no real medical services here either at the moment.
A call went round about 15 minutes ago for a doctor because a man's pulse was getting weaker and weaker but there are no doctors here.
I think the death toll is likely to rise quite sharply as rescuers start to arrive, and bodies begin to be dug out.
Sri Lanka's Tamil Tigers appeal for tsunami reliefReuters Alertnet
26 Dec 2004 18:46:25 GMT
COLOMBO, Sri Lanka, Dec 26 (Reuters) - Sri Lanka's Tamil Tiger rebels appealed on Sunday for interational donor aid after a tsunami devastated Tamil communities along the coastline of their northern and eastern strongholds.
The Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam, whose two-decade war for autonomy killed more than 64,000 people until a ceasefire three years ago, said several hundred Sri Lankan Tamils have been killed and tens of thousands left homeless.
"The human disaster and the tragedy the surviors face are unprecedented and need immediate and effective humanitarian intervention," the rebels, who are on a list of terror groups banned by the United States, said in a statement posted on pro-Tamil website Tamilnet.
The Tigers' call for help came hours after the Sri Lankan government declared a national disaster and made its own appeal for aid following the tsunami, which has killed more than 3,500 Sri Lankans and displaced around 750,000 more.
Donor nations have grown increasingly impatient with the Tigers and the Sri Lankan government in recent months. Efforts to forge lasting peace have been deadlocked since last year over the rebels' central demand for interim self-rule, and the Tigers have threatened to resume their freedom struggle.
The tsunami was triggered by an 8.9 magnitude earthquake off the Indonesian island of Sumatra that was followed by a series of aftershocks stretching north into the Andaman Sea.
Sri Lankans in Baxter detention centreNauruWire
November 23, 2004
The outlook is bleak for this group, most of whom have minimal or no legal representation, and are detained at the Baxter Detention Centre in South Australia. Only a handful of Sri Lankan asylum seekers have been granted refugee status by the Australian government since 2001.
Their situation has become even bleaker over the last few months.The armed conflict between the LTTE and Srilankan Government forces has displaced over 1.3 million people and over 64 000 are considered to have lost their lives since 1983. On September 26 Lennart Kotsalainen for the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees issued a statement that conditions in Sri Lanka are not conducive for the return of refugees.
Time runs out for asylum seekersThe Age
By Andra Jackson
September 20, 2004
A hunger strike, a High Court action and a direct appeal to Immigration Minister Amanda Vanstone are among last-ditch efforts to stop the forced return of asylum seekers to Sri Lanka.
The general-secretary of the Victorian Tamil Cultural Association, N. R. Wickiramasingham, said there were 525 unsuccessful Tamil asylum seekers in Australia who had fled violence and torture and were unwilling to return.
Those told by Immigration Department compliance officers that they must leave include asylum seekers who have been on bridging or temporary protection visas that have now expired.
Another 16, Tamils and Sinhalese - have been in Baxter detention for three years with one now on the eighth day of a hunger strike.
They fear returning to a country where thousands of Tamils arrested under the anti-terrorism legislation have "disappeared" from detention and rehabilitation camps, Mr Wickiramasingham said. But over the past two weeks, members of three families he knows of have been forced to leave Melbourne.
At the same time the Refugee and Immigration Legal Centre's David Manne and Melbourne University psychiatrist Paddy McGorry have expressed concern at a recent "disinclination to intervene" in Sri Lankan appeals for protection on compassionate grounds by the minister.
This is despite many Sri Lankans living in Australia for periods of nine to 10 years and having children born here.
The Victorian Tamil Cultural Association this week called on Mrs Vanstone to consider that "conditions are not yet conducive for the return of refugees to Sri Lanka". It pointed out that more than 800,000 Tamils were internally displaced in Sri Lanka; more than 35,000 were disabled; and the Sri Lankan armed forces continued to harass civilians despite a truce.
A Sri Lankan man (name supplied but not for publication) living in Melbourne for five-and-a-half years, took High Court action this week to stop the Immigration Department expelling him.
The man, 22, said he had been tortured twice while a student in 1996 and 1998 by Sri Lankan police and feared for his life if returned.
He said his parents and three brothers were in Canada and were trying to sponsor him to Canada. He said the High court case would not be heard for months but an Immigration officer had told him that unless he left Australia by midnight on Monday he would be detained.
The 16 Sri Lankans in Baxter detention centre arrived by boat to the Cocos Islands on September 15, 2001, two days before it was excised from Australia's immigration zone.
They were initially denied the right to lodge protection visa applications for a year, Rural Australians for Refugees spokeswoman Mira Wroblewski said.
The Human Rights and Equal Opportunities Commission is inquiring into whether this error led to the 16 being detained for longer than necessary, thereby breaching the UN International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, she said.
The man on hunger strike, who is 34 and was detained after his visa expired, was put into Baxter's management unit on Thursday and forcibly fed. He resumed his hunger strike on Saturday, Ms Wroblewski said.
Eleven other Sri Lankans held at Baxter yesterday entered the fifth day of a peaceful sit-in at the compound.
An Immigration spokesperson said all applications for ministerial intervention were assessed individually.
Link to article in The Age
Sri Lankan asylum seekers face deportationGreen Left Weekly
October 6 2004
The plight of hundreds of Sri Lankan asylum seekers, many of them living in Australia without the right to work, Medicare or government benefits, was largely invisible until the Victorian Tamil Cultural Association raised the alarm on September 18.
Nagamuthu Ramalingam Wickiramasingham, general secretary of the Victorian Tamil Cultural Association, told Green Left Weekly that he estimates there are some 500 people, most of them Tamils, who face being returned against their will to the country they fled from.
"Some families have lived here for up to 10 years, their kids have been born and schooled in Australia", Wickiramasingham explained. He sees a parallel with the situation of some 1600 East Timorese asylum seekers, some of whom waited up to 10 years for a decision on their asylum applications, developing enduring links in the communities in which they lived.
Most of those on bridging visas have had their claims refused at every level of appeal, and are required to report monthly, even weekly, to immigration department offices to get their visas renewed. There has been a characteristic unwillingness by successive immigration ministers to exercise their discretion and grant Sri Lankans the right to stay on compassionate or humanitarian grounds.
Wickiramasingham explained that many Sri Lankans' asylum claims have been rejected because the Australian government maintains that there is no longer a war in Sri Lanka, citing the cease-fire signed by the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) and the government in 1992 as proof that there is peace in Sri Lanka, and it is therefore a good time to go back.
According to Wickiramasingham, though, there is "an undeclared war still going on - both sides are still killing each other. The searches and harassment of the Tamil community is still going on. The Tamil MPs in parliament are voiceless."
Amnesty International has documented the use of torture and rape in police custody, and notes that no perpetrators have been convicted. At the end of 2003, the US Committee for Refugees estimated there were 500,000 people internally displaced within Sri Lanka and 100,000 Sri Lankan refugees in India, most of them Tamils.
Having exhausted every avenue of appeal in Australia, some Sri Lankan asylum seekers have been told they should make arrangements to leave Australia. Many have no money to get a plane ticket within the 28 days they have to make such arrangements, Wickiramasingham explained, so they get an itinerary from a travel agent. This allows a four-week extension on their visa.
Next time they report to immigration, they are asked to present a plane ticket. If they don't have one, officers threaten them with detention. When faced with such a choice, some have managed to scrape the money together to buy a plane ticket and leave "voluntarily". To date, Wickiramasingham has heard no news about the 10-15 families who have returned to Sri Lanka.
When assessing the veracity of a claim for asylum, Wickiramasingham explained, the authorities ask for proof that an applicant is in fact a Tamil, and not of Sinhalese or Indian background. They want documentation from the area where the applicant lived, but because many Tamil areas are still under the control of Sri Lankan security forces, this documentation has been impossible to obtain.
"Last month the UNHCR argued that conditions were not conducive for the return of Sri Lankan refugees from India", Lalitha Chelliah told GLW. Chelliah is a Tamil-Australian and a Socialist Alliance candidate for the Senate in Victoria. "The Australian government should accept the widespread assessment that it is not safe to send people back to Sri Lanka at the moment, and it should grant them humanitarian visas."
A number of Sri Lankan asylum seekers remain in detention. There are a small number in Melbourne's Maribyrnong detention centre, and 16 remain in South Australia's Baxter detention centre.
Those held in Baxter have been detained for three years. They marked the anniversary on September 15 with a plea to the immigration minister to reassess their cases for asylum in light of the deteriorating situation in their country.
These Sri Lankans, both Tamil and Sinhalese, were among 65 people who arrived by boat in the Cocos Islands on September 15, 2001. Two days later, the islands were excised from Australia's migration zone. The men were treated as "offshore entry persons", as if they had arrived after the excision.
They were held on Cocos Island for six months, then transferred to Christmas Island for a further six months, before a complaint they lodged with the Human Rights and Equal Opportunity Commission forced the government to transfer them to the Australian mainland and allow them to submit new applications.
On September 26, they addressed a letter to the Australian people. They explained: "We Sri Lankans have been living in our life in our home land, with threatened life, persecution, armed violence and killings since we've born. We are asylum seekers, in fact, seeking for freedom, peace and humanity that we have never felt in our whole life so far.
"We have explained our problems in a right way to the leaders of this nation with the hope of freedom and peace. But unfortunately, there is no compassion, there is no justice and there are no good results, but we've only got a life that there is not much difference between the life we lived back home and the life that we're living in here by being detained. Only difference is, giving up our life bit by bit and day by day in detention instead of being killed totally in one day.
"Let your friends know that still people in this beautiful nation, living without freedom and treated inhumanly by locking up indefinitely with the stamp of UNAUTHORISED ENTRY. At the same time ask the immigration ministry to consider our problem and to set us free by writing a letter to the minister."
Sri Lankan man deported to dangerGreen Left Weekly
December 1 2004
Sarah Stephen, Sydney
Ismail, a Sri Lankan man, was deported from Sydney?s Villawood detention centre on November 23. A previous attempt to deport him on October 19 failed after he panicked and harmed himself. Ismail was diagnosed by Professor Patrick McGorry of Melbourne University's psychiatry department as suffering from severe depression and requiring treatment as an inpatient in a hospital.
He was on a hunger strike in October and weighs only 51kg. He also has a condition that makes his fingers and toes permanently swollen, and his nails are lifting off. Although he has been in detention, this condition has been untreated.
Ismail has been in Australia for nine years, working and paying tax for seven of those.
Ismail is from the oppressed Tamil minority, and his family is also Muslim. Muslims comprise only 6% of a Sri Lankan population dominated by Buddhism and Hinduism. He fled his country when rebels attacked his family and sacked the jewellery shop he ran with his brother and father. His father died of a heart attack, while his brother fled to Italy, where he has been recognised as a refugee.
"Other Sri Lankan Muslims Ismail knows have been granted asylum in Germany, Norway and Britain", said Mark Goudkamp from the NSW Refugee Action Coalition, in a November 23 media release. "He arrived here in March 1996, the same month John Howard became PM. By winding up in heartless Australia, Ismail clearly got the short straw."
On November 19, Ismail was forcibly removed from Melbourne?s Maribyrnong detention centre, handcuffed, and driven to Villawood. He was held in the Management Unit (isolation cell) until his removal on November 23. Only the day before, the guards at Villawood had been telling Ismail that he would be transferred to a "normal" compound.
Department of Immigration and Multicultural and Indigenous Affairs (DIMIA) and Villawood officials have so far refused to provide refugee advocates with any information concerning Ismail?s removal. This includes refusing to disclose what airline he was deported on. Malaysian Airlines, which was scheduled to deport him on October 19, refused to take him the second time, as a result of his self-harm.
Due to a mix-up with his flight time, friends missed Ismail's arrival in Sri Lanka. As of November 28, Ismail had not been in contact with anyone he knew in Australia or Sri Lanka. There are serious concerns for his safety, given that he told some of his friends that he would kill himself outside the Australian embassy in Colombo. DIMIA has previously indicated that it is not concerned with monitoring the safety and welfare of asylum seekers it deports.
2004 Country Report - Sri LankaUS Committee for Refugees
Close to 500,000 Sri Lankans were internally displaced at the end of 2003, although estimates range between 363,000-600,000. Around 92,000 were in government run welfare centers. Almost 100,000 Sri Lankans were refugees in India. Most Sri Lankan refugees and displaced persons were Hindu Tamils, although thousands of Muslims and some Buddhist Sinhalese were also displaced.
In May , inter-communal violence displaced some 35,000 in eastern Trincomalees district, and hundred of others became internally displaced because of violence in other districts at the end of the year.
Link to Worldwide Refugee Information
2003 Country Report - Sri LankaUS Committee for Refugees
At year?s end, UNHCR said that conditions in Sri Lanka were not yet conducive for a large-scale, organized return of refugees or internally displaced persons, particularly since landmines posed a significant threat. However, the agency provided assistance to the spontaneous returnees and monitored their safety.
Link to Worldwide Refugee Information