Australian Minister Dutton claims he’s saving lives by locking up Tamil family on Christmas Island

Charandev Singh

An extraordinary situation has emerged in Australia where community members from Biloela, a small town in regional Queensland, have come out fighting for four of their own — an Eelam Tamil family whose father and mother arrived by boat in 2012 and 2013 as asylum seekers, and their two children, both born in Biloela.

The family had been locked in a Melbourne immigration detention centre for 18 months, thousands of miles away from Biloela, while they appealed the government’s decisions to refuse their asylum applications, but since 31 Aug 2019, they have been detained on Christmas Island, a remote Australian territory close to Indonesia.

Australian Senator Nick McKim exposed the government had spent $30 million dollars to keep the detention centre open on the island for only two months. On top of the $26.8m spent running the centre, the family’s detention and legal costs have so far cost more than $4.5m, according to the department of home affairs. Their next court hearings are scheduled for 21 and 25th of February 2020.

The only occupants of the detention centre were this family until recently. In a new development on 28 January 2020 the Australian Government announced it would send Australian citizens from Wuhan, China who may have the coronavirus to the same immigration detention centre for quarantine.

The UN Human Rights Committee had earlier instructed the Australian Government to remove the family from detention by 1 Nov 2019, in recognition of the long-term harm caused by detention to the family and children. As an signatory to the Optional Protocol to the ICCPR, Australia has a legal obligation to follow the Committee’s interim measures. However the Australian government has refused to comply.

The Biloela community’s appeal to allow the family stay has won wide support across Australia and the campaign reached a new level of public sympathy when distressing footage emerged of the attempted deportation of the family on the 29th of Aug 2019, halted by a last minute court injunction:

Following the court’s order, rather than returning the family Melbourne, from Darwin where they had been taken, the family was put on a chartered Sky Traders jet and sent to Christmas Island. The government has justified the detention of the family on the island, in part, for their own “safety” to protect them from supporters who may try to stop their deportation.

On 18 Sep 2019, the Federal Court of Australia ruled that the youngest daughter had a prime facie case that should be heard at full hearing.

For the moment they family are surrounded by Serco guards and the Australian Border Force whom are keeping them under constant surveillance with body cameras. (A report last year by the Australian Human Rights Commission on the use of force in immigration detention has called for a public inquiry and recommended compensation be paid in multiple cases of abuse.)

The family had previously been living in detention in Melbourne for around 18 months after being bundled into vans from Biloela in a dawn raid and transported thousands of kilometers from their home. The removal happened despite the fact, Priya and her daughter still had legal avenues open to challenge their negative asylum finding. On this basis, the courts stop three attempts to deport the family in the last 18 months. Rather than allowing the family to return to Biloela while their legal appeals were heard, the government held them in detention, in damaging conditions for the children’s physical and mental development according to medical reports.

What justifies such cruel policies? Home Affairs Minister Peter Dutton who holds the portfolio of border security in an opinion piece (1 Sept 2019) made a range of justifications.

One was this punishment of the family was about stopping the boats and therefore saving lives at sea. The film Stop the Boats – the lie of saving lives at sea exposed this very falsehood. See at 25 min version below:

(Read more about our campaign to resettle the Andika refugees featured in this film here)

Tamils “have been accepted back by a democratically elected inclusive Government

Home Affairs Minister Peter Dutton also made the claim that it was safe for the Eelam Tamils to return: “The civil war in Sri Lanka is now over and Tamils from around the world have returned to their country and have been accepted back by a democratically elected inclusive Government.”

The appointment of Shavendra Silva, the commander of the 58th division of the army in 2009, to chief of the army last year was an example that the abusers of the Tamils have remained continuously in power, even after the so-called “regime change” in 2015. However the facade of ‘regime change’ has collapsed with the election of Gotabaya Rajapaksa, former defence secretary, as President late last year.

The character of the Sri Lankan state and its armed forces that the Tamils are so fearful of was graphically revealed in the Permanent Peoples’ Tribunal on Sri Lanka in 2010 at the Dublin session and in 2013 at the Bremen session. Some of the evidence of the conduct of Gotabaya’s army and Shavendra Silva’s 58 division in 2009, is presented below (the content on all of these video’s are of a disturbing nature):

Foreign policy a determining factor for Australian refugee policy

In recent years the Australian government has taken an extraordinary series of measures to stop Tamil asylum seekers reaching its shores, stopping them, punishing them and denying their claims.

When Tamil asylum seekers first arriving in large numbers in Australia, after 2009, over 90% were found to be refugees. But in 2010 Australia announced it was suspending processing asylum applications from Sri Lanka (and Afghanistan), it also began detaining Tamil asylum seekers who had been found to be refugees under secret intelligence assessments as security threats, thereby nullifying their refugee claims (all of these security assessments would subsequently be overturned, but the refugee status of these persons was not). In 2012 the government would institute the ‘enhanced screening’ process, applying only to Sri Lanka arrivals, sending many Tamils back directly into the hands of the Sri Lankan government without their claims being heard. In 2013 the Australian Foreign Minister said too many asylum seekers were being granted protection calling them ‘economic migrants’:

INTERVIEWER: Do some mathematics here. If they’re economic migrants, why do nine out of 10 of them pretty much get accepted as genuine refugees? Are you saying we’ve got that wrong?
AUSTRALIAN FORIEGN MINISTER: Yeah, we’ve reached the view that as a result of court and tribunal decisions, it’s coming up wrong. We need a tougher, more hard-edged assessment.

Since then, Tamil asylum seekers have gone from a 90% approval rate, to 40% approval rate under the new Fast Track System, where 90% of Tamil claims are rejected by the Immigration Assessment Authority on review.

All these measures occurred with no acknowledgement that the Australian government itself was one of a coalition of nations that created the conditions for Tamils to want to flee the island by torpedoing the peace process between the Government of Sri Lanka and LTTE which formally began in 2002. The Tamil analyst Sivaram’s analysis helps one understand why Australia supported its allies the USA and UK with the war against the Tamils (Sivaram would be killed by pro-government death squads not long after this video was made):