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White vans carry hostages in Colombo, Melbourne and Sydney

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Australia has deported five Tamil asylum seekers to Sri Lanka, despite knowledge of the human rights abuses they will likely face, including interrogation, torture and "disappearance". Gaye Demanuele reports.

THE BARNABY JOYCE AFFAIR has held the attention of the nation over the past few weeks.

Well, certain details have.

Not so much the details of distortion of democracy, rorting of public funds and the cover provided by the old boy’s network – exposed months ago by IA – and kept under wraps by a compliant mainstream media, until now.

The faux outrage and recourse to “Australian values” dominated the public discourse throwing a camouflage net over the more sinister operations of the Home Affairs Department.

Such a quaint name, Home Affairs. It harks back to so-called simpler times when school children sang ‘God Save the Queen’ every morning in assembly and the White Australia policy was prominently on display.

This is in contrast with the present day, where politicians use coded terms to signal and incite racism using the guise of “strengthening the economy” or “cracking down on crime” by targeting “African gangs”. Then there is “protection of our borders” against “terrorism” and the deportation of “illegals” and “queue jumpers”. A whole lexicon compiled as propaganda to hide the facts of the Australian Government’s human rights abuses of asylum seekers and refugees. A lexicon first practised in the colony that became Australia in the attempted genocide of the original people of this land and continues in various forms to this day.

Behind the smoke screens, Minister for Home Affairs Peter Dutton has concentrated so much power within his portfolio that some would say he is the most powerful man in office in Australia. He holds the power of life and death over asylum seekers and refugees who legally sought Australia’s asylum. He has undermined the appeals tribunal and its judiciary independencedenied adequate medical treatment for refugees in Australia's care and discredited and dismissed the personal accounts of asylum seekers. He continues to lie about the threat to the safety of detainees deported to their countries of origin.

For the majority of asylum seekers, it is not safe to return home. Otherwise, they would not have endured years of punishing detention despite having committed no crimes separated from the people that love them. They would have simply returned home without coercion, had conditions become safe for them there.

Tamil asylum seekers, especially those who were former members of the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam, have a well-founded fear of persecution if returned. Former Tamil Tigers have been routinely harassed, interrogated and tortured by Sri Lankan security forces. Some have been “disappeared”.

Despite all evidence to the contrary, the Australian Government denies that the people who it deports back to Sri Lanka are at risk of human rights abuses. In the case of Tamil man, Santharuban, who had been granted an interim protection measure by the United Nations Committee Against Torture (UNCAT), it exerted pressure on UNCAT to withdraw the interim measure.

A spokesperson for the Tamil Refugee Council Aran Mylvaganam said:

“It is unreasonable for the committee against torture to accept the testimony of the Australian Government while ignoring eyewitness testimony of refugees in this case.”

UNCAT and the Australian Government have also ignored reports by Human Rights Watch and Amnesty International. The U.N. ignored its own committee, Working Group on Arbitrary Detention. Preliminary findings from the group’s visit to Sri Lanka reported that Tamils, upon returning after seeking asylum or working abroad were arrested and detained in 2015, 2016 and 2017. The Working Group received testimony that, in some cases, the returnees were beaten and kept under surveillance once released, having been charged with offences relating to illegal departure from Sri Lanka.

Australia, as reported by Human Rights Watch, has 'its own serious unresolved human rights problems'. The report highlights issues including Indigenous rights, children’s rights, disability rights, youth incarceration, violence against women, sexual orientation and gender, forced labour, draconian counter-terrorism laws and, of course, the conditions in which asylum seekers and refugees are held. 

The report states:

'Australia acted inconsistently and rarely showed leadership at the UN on human rights issues ...'

Last October, Australia was elected to the UN Human Rights Council. It will take its seat in Geneva next month. On Thursday (22 February), despite the best efforts of lawyers, advocates and activists, five Tamil asylum seekers were deported by Australia to Sri Lanka.

Santharuban was one of those asylum seekers. He was taken into custody on arrival at Colombo airport and interrogated by security forces. Untypically, Santharuban was released after four hours, probably due to the international scrutiny of his case. He remains in a precarious position — grave fears are held for his safety in the coming months.

Aran Mylvaganam shared Santharuban’s account of his removal from Australia:

He had been handcuffed and removed from the Broadmeadows detention centre [Melbourne Immigration Transit Accommodation] on Tuesday evening [22 February] and was driven to Sydney – escorted by four guards, one Border Force agent and one doctor – where he was detained.

Early Thursday morning [24 February], he was asked to sign a deportation document. He claims that when he refused, Border Force agents grabbed him by the shirt and threatened to handcuff him, tape his mouth shut and drag him onto the plane.

Santharuban signed the document out of fear for his safety and subsequently was put on a flight to Sri Lanka, accompanied by two guards.

Santharuban was taken hostage in a white van from a detention centre in the suburbs of Melbourne. A white van just like the white vans that collected Tamil people from their homes in the north of Sri Lanka. The people that were never seen or heard from again.

We have a seat on the UN Human Rights Council, Barnaby has resigned as Deputy Prime Minister and Peter Dutton wants school children to pledge allegiance to Australian values every morning. God save the Queen ...

Gaye Demanuele is a member of the Close the Camps Action Collective. You can follow Gaye on Twitter @gayedemanuele and the Close the Camps Action Collective @CloseTheCamps.

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