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Tuesday, 5 February 2013
Page: 115

Ms ROWLAND (Greenway) (22:04): Yesterday the shadow minister for immigration and shadow minister for foreign affairs stated the coalition's policy on blocking Sri Lankan asylum seeker boats from Australian waters without first testing any refugee claims. In making this announcement the opposition has made two extremely dangerous and irresponsible conclusions: (1) that there are no legitimate reasons for any person from a specific country, namely Sri Lanka, to seek asylum, and (2) that the Australian Navy will be able to turn leaky boats around on the high seas outside of our territorial waters without consideration of an individual's need for protection.

This is despite the fact that, according to a range of legal specialists, including the Human Rights Law Centre, such a policy:

would expose at least some asylum seekers to a real risk of torture, persecution or other flagrant human rights violations and therefore violate Australia's non-refoulement obligations under international law;

would be incompatible with the Convention on the Elimination of Racial Discrimination and Australia's own Racial Discrimination Act;

is not supported by credible evidence which shows that arbitrary arrests, detention, disappearances and even torture and extrajudicial killings remain widespread in Sri Lanka; and

is not supported by the rate at which asylum seekers from Sri Lanka are currently accepted to have valid refugee claims by Australia.

I represent a large Tamil community in this place. In fact, 8.4 per cent of all Tamil speakers in Australia live in my electorate. A number of my constituents have contacted me, expressing their deep concern over the statements made by the shadow foreign minister and the shadow immigration minister that the situation in Sri Lanka is stable for all people and that all Tamils are no longer in any danger in their homeland.

We must understand that there has been an ethnic conflict going on in Sri Lanka since the 1950s. The extremely violent and devastating civil war only officially concluded in 2009, and reports of disappearances and politically motivated assaults have not stopped. My constituents have told me how dangerous it can be for Tamils in Sri Lanka, and human rights groups and the United States and UK governments have also expressed concern over the situation for Tamil people in Sri Lanka.

In fact, a three-member US delegation was in Sri Lanka last week to discuss issues, including progress in implementing the recommendation of Sri Lanka's own official investigation into the war which called for the prosecution of persons on all sides of the conflict suspected of killing civilians. But, according to reports, the delegation appeared dissatisfied enough to announce that it would repeat its action of last March, when it sponsored a resolution at the UNHCR urging Colombo to implement those recommendations. Deputy Assistant Secretary of State James Moore told reporters in Colombo that the US had decided to sponsor a procedural resolution against Sri Lanka at the March 2013 sessions of the UNHCR.

Another concerning development occurred only recently when the nation's chief justice was summarily dismissed, despite protests by lawyers, human rights groups and clergy members. But, despite this, after their trip, the coalition have effectively declared that there are no legitimate reasons for any Sri Lankan to seek asylum. While I do acknowledge that there is a proportion of Sri Lankans seeking asylum who are doing so purely for economic reasons, I would like to acknowledge the work of the member for McMahon in his former capacity as the Minister for Immigration and Citizenship. He took some tough decisions to curb the number of economic refugees coming to Australian from Sri Lanka. I do not know how anyone can put a blanket ban on all people from one country seeking asylum without even considering their claims.

The second aspect of this approach to Sri Lankan asylum seekers concerns the operational reality of turning boats around on the high seas. According to the UN High Commissioner for Refugees, any such blanket approach, as past experience has shown, is operationally difficult and dangerous for all concerned. The shadow minister had a lot to say last year about the High Court challenge to Sri Lankan removals. How does he think turning people around to Sri Lanka in international waters will go down in the High Court? How does he think it is in line with the refugee convention?

In closing, I do not want to see people paying people smugglers and boarding boats and making the dangerous journey to Australia. In fact, this is a concern I regularly hear from many Tamil members in my electorate—particularly those who have relatives languishing in refugee camps, including in India. But for the coalition to try and paint a picture of Sri Lanka that differs quite dramatically from the one conveyed by human rights groups, the United States and United Kingdom delegations and members of my own electorate, in order to legitimise a policy position that many have said is illegal under the refugee convention is, to put it mildly, disingenuous in the extreme. I have discussed this issue with the Minister for Foreign Affairs, and I note his commitment to engaging with Sri Lanka in order to further progress the reconciliation process in the country. I will continue to advocate on this very important issue.