Mar 12, Melbourne: Australia's close cooperation with Sri Lanka to prevent illegal migration of asylum seekers has been questioned in a report released by Australian human rights lawyers who say the policy is riddled with human rights risks and cooperation should be stopped immediately.
The new report "Can't flee, can't stay: Australia's interception and return of Sri Lankan asylum seekers" prepared by the Melbourne-based Human Rights Law Centre says Australia's efforts at 'stopping boats' are jeopardizing the ability of Sri Lankans at risk of persecution to gain access to safety and asylum.
The report further says that the risks are compounded by Australia's domestic policy of forcibly returning the boat arrivals back to Sri Lanka without conducting proper assessments as to their refugee status or monitoring their safety on return.
"Australia cloaks its work in Sri Lanka in the language of border protection and anti-people smuggling. Whilst these are legitimate objectives, they must not be achieved through means that fail to provide protection to asylum seekers," the human rights lawyers said in their report.
According to the Human Rights Law Center, the report, based on interviews with government officials, information obtained through freedom of information requests and statements from the public record, reveals a deeply flawed suite of policy measures and practices.
"The entire approach is flawed because it fails to recognize that many Sri Lankans are in genuine and urgent need of protection. Instead of providing protection, Australia blocks their pathway to safety and puts Sri Lankan asylum seekers at risk of torture and mistreatment in the hands of Sri Lankan military and police," the Center's Director of Advocacy and Research and the report's author, Emily Howie, said.
According to the report, Australian Federal Police, Defence, and Australian Customs and Border Protection Service (Customs) maintain a presence on the ground in Sri Lanka to share information with, and develop the capacity of, Sri Lankan authorities to intercept boats.
Australian government provides around $2 million in materiel support for the Sri Lanka Navy every year and in addition, last year, the Australian government gifted two Bay-class patrol boats to the Sri Lankan navy to intercept asylum-seeker boats before they leave Sri Lankan waters.
However, according to the report, despite Sri Lanka's poor human rights record Australia makes no comprehensive attempt to vet the human rights record of the individuals or units with which it cooperates on border security.
The report says since the end of the war in 2009, Sri Lanka has become increasingly authoritarian; the rule of law has been eroded and serious human rights violations continue to occur.
Alleging that there are credible allegations of war crimes and crimes against humanity committed by the Sri Lankan military during the final phases of the war, the report notes that "It is this military and Government with which Australia cooperates to prevent people from leaving Sri Lanka."
The report calls on the Australian government to support efforts by the international community to conduct an investigation into the alleged war crimes committed by Sri Lankan military.
The Full Report