In a further effort to outbid Labor’s already rotten refugee policy, the Liberals have promised to turn around every single boat coming from Sri Lanka, with no exception, and use the navy to send them straight back.

This comes on the back of the Labor government’s efforts to “screen out” Sri Lankan asylum seekers, and send them back to Sri Lanka without even any proper assessment of their refugee claim. The Immigration Department has given some only five minute interviews, with their rejection clearly determined in advance. One man told a Tamil community representative, “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.’”

The government has justified this by saying many of those arriving from Sri Lanka are “economic migrants”, not legitimate refugees. Even Sydney Morning Herald writer Ben Doherty has claimed, “most Sri Lankans boarding boats for Australia do so for work and from a desire to build a better life for their family”.

The number of boat arrivals from Sri Lanka rose to 6000 last year. But despite all the rhetoric, the Immigration Department’s own statistics show most boat arrivals from Sri Lanka are legitimate refugees. Newly released figures from 2011-12 show 87 per cent received refugee status after their initial determination and appeal process were complete.

The persecution of Tamils in Sri Lanka has not eased. A process of ethnic cleansing is now taking place, with Sinhalese being moved into Tamil areas to take over, “the traditional fishing livelihood of the war-ravaged Tamils in the northern Jaffna and north-eastern Mullaitivu districts”, according to a former Tamil MP.

The Australian Immigration Department has tried to use the fact that some majority ethnic Sinhalese Sri Lankans are now arriving on boats as proof that they must be “economic migrants”. But Sinhalese Sri Lankans that criticise the government are not safe. At least 44 journalists were killed or disappeared between April 2004 and January 2010. Since the war ended abductions carried out by military personnel in white vans have increased, with one reported every five days.

According to Asia expert Professor Damien Kingsbury, Sri Lanka has, “descended into an authoritarian state”. Early this year the government dismissed the Supreme Court chief justice, Shirani Bandaranayake, in a move condemned by legal experts around the world. The former judge now fears her life is in danger. Her crime was to declare that a multi-million dollar development, proposed by the president’s younger brother, could not proceed without further approvals.

The aggressive moves by both Labor and Liberal to turn around Sri Lankan asylum seekers show how far both are prepared to stoop. We can’t let them get away with it.

James Supple

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