By Frances Harrison –
He lay in agony on the ground on a tarpaulin sheet in the open, bandaged in rags in the scorching tropical heat after two major surgeries on his leg and hip, but Thevam considered himself extremely lucky. Just the day before he’d been moved out of the school building turned into a makeshift hospital. A day later and he too would have been among the eight dead and many more injured in the shell attack on the hospital. No matter that the building had a clear red cross painted on its roof, visible to government drones and surveillance planes.
Thevam is a 39-year-old Tamil shopkeeper with a wife and two young children from northern Sri Lanka. He is a witness to war crimes whose mother was killed while sheltering in a bunker, and himself still bears huge angry scars on his body. He was granted refugee status in Australia two years ago but is not free to restart his life. Thevam is one of 51 Tamils who have failed their security clearance and shockingly he hasn’t even been told why.
How the security clearance process operates is unclear. When Australia screens refugees from Sri Lanka the intention may be to keep out former members of the Tamil Tigers – a group widely proscribed as a terrorist outfit, though not in Australia – that recruited teenagers and pioneered suicide bombing. That may sound sensible but it misses many key points.
Refugee advocates believe it’s possible Australia’s security screening could be based on information supplied by the very government from which the refugees are seeking sanctuary. Sending names to Sri Lanka to ask if individuals have cases outstanding against them is a nonsense if you know how random the persecution of war survivors has been. In most cases the Sri Lankan security forces detain Tamils on suspicion of being terrorists and then extract large bribes to release them and help them flee the country. Detainees are routinely tortured and then forced to sign a confession in a language they can’t understand. Any adult man who lived in the warzone is a potential suspect for the Sri Lankan authorities– but also a witness to the government’s war crimes and crimes against humanity now documented by UN lawyers.
In the UK Tamil asylum seekers actually strive to prove they were members of the rebel movement, knowing it will convince a tribunal that they are still at risk after the war. I’ve testified in appeals to confirm an individual was a Tiger and that’s clinched their case. In Australia refugees have to hide their connection to the organization for fear of a negative security assessment.
It’s also necessary to understand that in the patch of Sri Lanka ruled by the Tigers every family had to hand over one child to fight, whether they liked it or not. Civilians in that area also had to pay taxes and give free labour to the rebel movement that ran the administration.
I have interviewed scores of survivors from the final phase of Sri Lanka’s civil war in which the UN says possibly 70,000 civilians were killed in just five months in an area of at most 35 square kilometres. In terms of intensity and speed, the former Norwegian peace mediator Erik Solheim says the slaughter in Sri Lanka in 2009 was probably the worst in the world this century.
Those who survived are deeply traumatised – often suicidal. None of the hardened fighters I met wanted to take up arms again. They’ve had it crushed out of them. Most just want to hide somewhere quiet and try and rebuild their lives, haunted by the memories of babies’ heads blown off and the cries of the injured as they died in agony. These broken people cannot be a security risk to Australians.
What’s posing a security risk is the continued persecution of Tamils in Sri Lanka, which threatens to rekindle the civil war. In 2009, when the Tigers were defeated, the government had a window of opportunity to reconcile communities. That’s long gone. Now it’s clear that Tamils who survived the war are being targeted for detention, torture and extortion. There’s one soldier for every five civilians in the north – the army actually increased in size after the end of the war. Sexual harassment by the security forces is rife – especially of women Tigers. Recently I met a Tamil girl who’d been continuously gang raped, beaten and burned with cigarettes in a Sri Lankan police station for 47 days – as recently as last November. Australian politicians who say everything is fine in Sri Lanka should meet her and many like her turning up in Europe.
The repression of Tamils in northern Sri Lanka today is so intense that anger is bubbling up. Almost every family lost someone in the war zone but the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights, Navi Pillay, has documented how the authorities prevent survivors from holding religious gatherings to mourn their dead. None of the root causes of the conflict has been addressed – a triumphalist government refuses to devolve power to Tamil areas. So it’s only a matter of time before violence erupts again from another humiliated generation with nothing to live for.
Meanwhile many of Sri Lanka’s top military commanders, in charge when war crimes were committed, have been posted abroad as Ambassadors, benefiting from diplomatic immunity. Instead of locking up recognised refugees at great expense, Australia would do better to target the perpetrators of war crimes who roam free.
*Thevam is not the refugee’s real name. This article is first appeared in Asia Correspondent.