Gobie Rajalingam is co-convenor for the University of Sydney’s Sri Lanka Human Rights Project and a researcher at the Lowy Institute for International Policy.
Last month, Immigration Minister Chris Evans and Foreign Minister Stephen Smith justified the suspension of Sri Lankan asylum seeker claims on the basis that the country is transitioning towards a state of normalcy.
This claim stands in sharp contrast to DFAT's travel advice, which continues to warn that the north and eastern regions of Sri Lanka are perilous for Australian travel. Evidently, what is perilous for Australians is somehow safe for persecuted Tamil refugees.
Nor is there much 'normalcy' among Sri Lanka's oppressed Tamil population, who constitute the vast majority, if not all, Sri Lankan asylum seeker arrivals. Their fears of individual persecution have been compounded by reports of ethnic 'colonisation' as new Buddhist shrines and permanent garrisons spring up on sites flattened by government bombing in the country's north.
Worse still, the Edmund Rice Centre has revealed disturbing evidence that returned asylum seekers have in the past been detained on arrival, and some later killed. For the 76,000 internally displaced Tamils already languishing in illegal internment camps, exposure to rape, mysterious 'disappearances' and extra-judicial killings are a real and ever-present danger.
Having failed so far to reconcile its divided multi-ethnic population, the Sri Lankan Government may have won the war, but it has certainly not won the peace.
Canberra's decision to freeze applications for asylum is an embarrassing and cynical election year fix-up. By aiming to deter uninvited arrivals rather than enhance their protection, Australia has pandered to the worst kind of populist xenophobia.
Australia's Minister for Immigration must be held accountable to his promise that detention centres only be used 'as a last resort and for the shortest practicable time.' Moreover, as a signatory to the 1951 Refugee Convention, Australia should lift its selective suspensions and comply with Article 3 which provides that 'the Contracting Parties shall apply the provisions of this Convention to refugees without discrimination as to race, religion or country of origin.'
Beyond humanitarian pragmatism, Australia has a mandate to protect refugees, and this must be respected as the current restrictionist climate intensifies.
Photo by Flickr user !borghetti, used under a Creative Commons license.