More than a hundred ethnic Tamils sailed from Sri Lanka to Australia in June 2014 seeking asylum. They were picked up by a customs boat and held onboard for a month.
On January 27, the Australian high court ruled that the detention of the Sri Lankan asylum seekers at sea was lawful. Their case has touched the hearts of many Australians bringing the government’s immigration policies back to the attention of the public.
Hugh de Kretser is the executive director of the Human Rights Law Centre (HRLC), Melbourne, part of the legal team which challenged the Australian government for detaining the Sri Lankan asylum seekers at sea.
Al Jazeera: What kind of ordeal did the boat detainees suffer?
Hugh de Kretser: The asylum seekers had fled from persecution in Sri Lanka to India. They report that life was untenable in India. They were unable to register, obtain legal status, work or send their children to school. They weren’t free to move where they wanted.
On June 29, 2014, the asylum seekers were intercepted by Australian Navy and Customs vessels off the coast of Christmas Island. Their boat had engine problems and they were grateful for what they thought was a rescue operation by the Australian government. Instead, they were detained on a customs vessel for almost a month while the Australian government tried and failed to return them to India. One hundred and fifty-seven people, including 50 children (as young as one-year-old), were locked in windowless rooms for at least 22 hours each day, sometimes for the entire day.
For the most part they didn’t know where they were or where they were headed. In mid-July, nine adults were separated from the group and trained to pilot orange lifeboats. They were told they were off the coast of India and would be required to pilot the lifeboats, with the entire group as their passengers, to India.The lifeboat plan was aborted. Without informing the asylum seekers, the government decided to sail them back across the Indian Ocean to the Australian Territory of Cocos Islands. They were flown to the Australian mainland and forced to board a plane to Nauru where most of them continue to be detained. They face harsh conditions and a very uncertain future in Nauru.
Al Jazeera: How would you describe the Australian government’s current response to asylum seekers?
Kretser: The political obsession is with “stopping the boats”. The number of asylum seekers arriving by boat in Australia each year has fluctuated over the past decade from under 200 to a high of around 20,000 in 2013. Over 1,000 have drowned attempting the boat journey over that time. People come to our shores by boat seeking Australia’s protection. Instead, they receive our cruelty. Our policies are focused on deterrence – punishing vulnerable people who survive the dangerous boat journey in order to deter others from attempting the journey.
Al Jazeera: What are conditions like in the detention centres?
Kretser: The UN Refugee Agency has described conditions in those centres as inhumane, unsafe and, in the case of Nauru where children are detained, unfit for children. It is taking months for refugee claims to be processed – in the case of Manus Island, some asylum seekers have been detained for more than two years without their claims being finalised. It’s clear the detention breaches Australia’s international human rights obligations.
Al Jazeera: Can a balance be struck between the government’s need to manage its borders and the humanitarian needs of asylum seekers and refugees?
Kretser: Not content with mandatorily detaining people in Australia, we now detain over 2,000 asylum seekers in former colonies in Nauru and Papua New Guinea. We have also intercepted around 15 asylum seeker boats in the past 18 or so months, forcibly returning asylum seekers by either turning their boat back, putting them on orange lifeboats off the coast of Indonesia, or in the case of Sri Lanka, directly handing the asylum seekers to the Sri Lankan navy after a flimsy on-water refugee screening assessment. Our current government justifies its harsh approach by saying it is saving lives at sea by deterring people from undertaking risky boat journeys. We don’t need to inflict cruelty to save lives at sea. We need to provide safe pathways to protection so that people don’t need to risk the boat journey.
A good start would include; increasing our offshore refugee intake; working with transit countries like Indonesia and Malaysia to provide status and work rights for refugees; and supporting reconciliation in Sri Lanka, instead of undermining international efforts to investigate war crimes.