Asylum seeker returns
Twenty-five Sri Lankan asylum seekers returned home on Thursday after their applications were rejected by Britain, creating more discussion on the country’s treatment of returnees.
The flight carrying eight Muslims, 13 Tamils and four Sinhalese arrived at the international airport at midday. According to reports, once they landed the group was questioned by the Police and their statements were recorded, following which they were handed over to their family members who had come to collect them at the airport.
Despite previous reports that 50 Sri Lankans would return, British media reported that many of them obtained court injunctions at the last moment to prevent boarding the flight. Britain has refused asylum to them after assessing that returning would not cause them any harm from the Sri Lankan Government. However, human rights groups have insisted that on previous occasions returnees have been held and tortured by the Government, a claim that has been denied repeatedly by the Sri Lankan Government.
According to a BBC report, both Freedom from Torture and Human Rights Watch say that they have interviewed nearly 40 people who subsequently escaped back to Britain and gave accounts of alleged torture by the Sri Lankan authorities, which the groups say is medically verified. The UK Border Agency says the removal of a person only happens where it is satisfied that he or she has no protection needs.
While the Sri Lankan Government has also vehemently denied torture, many Tamil people remain unconvinced and continue to have doubts over their security. This together, with continuing land issues, legal hurdles for returning or resettled Tamil people, as well as military occupation in the north, act as deterrents for these people to return home. Disappearances or missing people also remain uninvestigated and this was among the issues raised during US Assistant Secretary of State for South and Central Asia Robert O. Blake’s visit last week, emphasising on the need for the Government to have a transparent mechanism to deal with these concerns.
While it is easy to dismiss these claims as “international conspiracies,” the fair-minded person has to admit that people concerned with their economic and personal security will have reservations about returning. Since the end of the war, little more than 5,000 Sri Lankans have returned under a UNHCR-facilitated voluntary repatriation program, mostly to Trincomalee, Mannar, Vavuniya and Jaffna Districts.
In 2011, 1,728 Sri Lankan refugees returned with UNHCR’s help after the agency stepped up its assistance package to returnees. However, the numbers are low. In fact, the number of Sri Lankan refugees returning home with UNHCR’s help declined during the first half of 2012 compared with the same period in 2011.
While it is difficult to pinpoint the reason, it is obvious that the 25 people who obtained court injunctions to stay in Britain rather than return to Sri Lanka are not alone. UNHCR estimates that there are around 100,000 Tamil refugees in India.
In such an environment, the Government has to make a serious and sustained attempt to address ongoing concerns for security of returnees as well as address the broader concerns expressed in the Lessons Learnt and Reconciliation Commission (LLRC) report. Verbal denial is best augmented by tangible action.