Sri Lanka’s north still bare the marks of the country’s decades-long civil war. (Flickr: Conor Ashleigh AusAID)
The Australian Government is poised to deport a Tamil family from the Central Queensland town of Biloela to Sri Lanka — where asylum seeker advocates fear they will face danger.
- The Tamil Tigers fought to create an independent state during the 26-year civil war
- But they were defeated in 2009, but there are reports that Tamils still face retribution
- The UN found both sides committed war crimes, but no officials have been prosecuted
The case hinges on the youngest daughter, two-year-old Tharunicaa, who was born in Australia, but government lawyers say her claim is “manifestly hopeless”.
The Federal Court has prevented the Government from deporting her until at least 4:00pm today and the matter is due before court again this morning.
Priya and Nadesalingam, also known as Nades, came to Australia by boat in 2012 and 2013 — Priya has said she witnessed her fiance and others being burned alive, while Nades reported bearing scars from a government bomb blast.
Ten years after civil war ravaged the country, what risks are the Tamil ethnic minority facing, and could recent political developments marginalise them further?
‘Living in fear’
A family photo of Nadesalingam and Priya, and their children, aged two years and nine months. (Supplied: Tamil Refugee Council)
Tamil activist Ramanathan Shrignaneswaran, an accountant and political organiser in Sri Lanka, told the ABC Tamils continue to “live in fear” in the highly-militarised north.
“Still Tamil people are being arrested by Sri Lanka forces under the guise of terrorism,” he said.
He said he had been targeted by police for questioning and harassment as recently as last year.
“They suddenly came to my home and forcefully entered, then questioned my wife about my whereabouts,” he said, before interrogating him and showing him a list of phone calls he had made.
“This is what is happening to the Tamils who lead the protests and talk about the truth.”
He said he had documented disappearances which continue to haunt Tamil people, with young women refusing to remarry and children having never met their missing fathers.
“Until a proper solution would be found for the Tamils of Sri Lanka, we will never be living without fear,” he said.
“Always we see the green uniforms and loaded weapons, the blooming Buddha statues, all the vacant corners of the Tamils’ homeland.
“[It] feels like this country is not for us.”
Tamil separatists and the civil war
The Tamil Tigers operated a number of women’s bridgades during the Civil War. (Wikimedia Commons: Salix Oculus)
A 26-year civil war raged in Sri Lanka between government forces and the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE), more commonly known as the Tamil Tigers.
The Tamil Tigers were fighting to create an independent state in the north and east of the country, but the separatist movement was crushed by government soldiers in 2009, bringing an end to the conflict.
The United Nations has found both sides committed war crimes during the conflict — government forces bombed hospitals, carried out widespread killings of civilians, and subjected those detained to torture and rape; while the Tamil Tigers assassinated public officials, killed civilians in suicide bombings and used child soldiers in their ranks.
Most of the Tamil Tigers leadership were killed, and with the government forces emerging as victors in the conflict, officials have largely not been held accountable for their crimes.
Reports of ongoing torture and disappearances
Families on both sides of the divide lost loved ones during the war. (Reuters: Dinuka Liyanawatte)
Hundreds of Tamil Tigers surrendered on the promise of humanitarian treatment in the final days of the civil war — they were loaded onto buses and were never seen by their families again.
The missing have left searing psychological wounds, but United Nations and NGO reports suggest disappearances, detention and torture continued for years after the war was over.
The International Truth and Justice Project in Sri Lanka has documented allegations of ongoing torture, taking statements from 76 Tamils who said they were tortured, and in many cases, sexually violated in illegal detention between 2015 and 2017.
Isobel McGarity, a lawyer with the Refugee Advice and Casework Service in Sydney, said her Tamil clients’ testimony showed that arbitrary detentions, harassment, torture and sexual violence still persist.
“There’s a bit of a misapprehension that because the civil war concluded in 2009, that everything is over, but by all accounts this is not the case [according to] our clients,” she said.
Mario Arulthas, advocacy director for the People for Equality and Relief in Lanka, said in the current context, the Biloela family’s safety could not be guaranteed.
“It’s only five years since abductions and killings were basically a daily occurrence on the island,” he said.
“It’s untrue to say that there’s only been a few isolated cases.”
Culture of impunity despite war crimes
The UN has found that both sides of the civil war were responsible for committing war crimes. (Flickr: David Holt)
Tamils also hold concerns about recent military and political developments in the country.
Last month, Shavendra Silva — who is accused of orchestrating war crimes — was promoted to Commander-in-Chief of the Sri Lankan army.
Further, former defence secretary Gotabhaya Rajapaksa, who played a key role in defeating the Tamil Tigers during his brother’s government, has been named the opposition’s candidate for presidential elections to be held in November this year.
Kandasani, aged 36, digs down to a suspected land mine in a paddy field near Thunukkai, northern Sri Lanka. (Flickr: UK Department for International Development / Russell Watkins)
The promotion and re-emergence of the Rajapaksa family sent a chilling message to Tamils, according to Crisis Group’s Sri Lanka project director Alan Keenan.
“It sends a signal that the Sri Lankan military and the Sri Lankan political class don’t care enough about these issues to ever actually hold anybody accountable for the literally hundreds and hundreds of atrocities in Sri Lanka’s recent 20 to 30-year history,” he said.
“I think those fears of persecution could well be on the rise in coming months, so I think everyone needs to be alert to that.
“So even if things are not nearly as severe in terms of threats to life and safety for Tamils now, they could well become severe in the coming months.”
Sri Lanka’s ministry of foreign affairs and prime minister’s office did not respond to the ABC’s requests for comment about the impunity for war criminals and the safety of Tamils in the country.
Torture ‘no longer state sponsored’
The Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade (DFAT) and the Department of Home Affairs did not respond to the ABC’s requests for comment about the safety of Tamils in Sri Lanka.
In their 2018 Country Report, DFAT said “the risk of torture perpetrated by either military, intelligence or police forces has decreased since the end of the civil conflict and is no longer state-sponsored”.
“Because few reports of torture are verified, it is difficult to determine the prevalence of torture but DFAT assesses that, irrespective of religion, ethnicity, geographic location, or other identity, Sri Lankans face a low risk of mistreatment that can amount to torture,” it read.
In the wake of the Easter Sunday terrorist attacks that killed more than 250 people in hotels and churches earlier this year, DFAT continues to instruct Australian travellers to “exercise a high degree of caution” in Sri Lanka.
Last week, Home Affairs Minister Peter Dutton has said the Tamil family from Biloela were found not to be refugees and do not warrant Australia’s protection.
Ms McGarity said often Tamils were afraid to disclose their past links to the separatist movement, meaning they might reveal it later in their asylum seeking process, by which stage it was too late.
“It’s very difficult for clients to shake off that feeling of being watched by a government and trusting authority figures when they come to Australia,” she said.
The family of four awaits their fate on the Christmas Island detention centre.