The nowhere people

asylum-seekersOn Friday, August 1, the Australian government secretly transferred 157 Sri Lankan Tamil asylum seekers to the Nauru Detention Centre. While staying in refugee camps in India, they had taken a boat from Puducherry to reach Australia but were intercepted in the middle of the ocean near Christmas Island by navy patrol boats in June. For close to a month, the group, which included around 50 children, was held in an Australian vessel before being sent transferred to Nauru.

“The refugees have not had access to legal aid,” said Hugh de Krester, Executive Director of the Melbourne-based Human Rights Law Centre, who had managed to interview four of the asylum seekers before they were shifted to Nauru. “The Australian government has been trying to send the refugees back to India as their official policy is to treat those arriving by boat as illegal immigrants.”

When asked as to why the refugees wanted to leave for Australia, Mr. Krester said “They told me they were unable to send their children to school and had no freedom of movement in the camps in India and wanted a better life. These people had been in India for less than six months, which shows they migrated recently.”

Though Australia is a signatory to the UN Refugee Convention, it has been eager to return the refugees to India. “The Australian government has in the past sent back asylum seekers to Sri Lanka. They were abused by the Sri Lankan police upon their return,” Mr. Krester said. The matter is in court right now and it is not known yet whether the immigrants will be granted asylum.

“Australia is obligated under international law to ensure that all asylum seekers’ claims to refuge are assessed in a full, fair and impartial manner, regardless of their mode of arrival. It is also obligated under international law to observe the principle of ‘non-refoulement’, or not returning a person — regardless of their refugee status — to a country where they may face serious human rights abuses,” said Kadambari Gladding, spokesperson, Amnesty International India. Amnesty International (AI) has in the past documented rights abuses against asylum seekers in the Nauru detention centre.

Sources in the Department for Rehabilitation, Government of Tamil Nadu, said since the refugees had migrated to Australia voluntarily, there was little that they could do in this situation.

As India is not a signatory to the UN Refugee Convention, the safety, equal rights, long-term stability and welfare of refugees in India are not fully protected by law. “In order to protect refugees’ rights more effectively, India should sign and ratify the 1951 UN Refugee Convention and the 1967 Protocol,” Ms. Gladding said. (The Hindu)

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