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Wednesday, 19 August 2009
Page: 5484

Senator FURNER (7:38 PM) —On Tuesday afternoon of this week, I greeted two young Australians, Seran and Vishna, who had just completed a 300 kilometre walk from Sydney to Parliament House. The journey took nine days. It commenced in the heart of Sydney and went through country towns, finally ending in Canberra. Their intention was to raise concerns about the situation in camps in Sri Lanka, where there are an estimated 300,000 citizens, including their relatives, being held. Vishna is a 20-year-old who is currently studying criminology at UNSW, and Seran is a professional dancer, choreographer and teacher.

Both Seran and Vishna explained that the situation in the camps is severe, with a lack of water, food and medication, and major hygiene issues. They also stressed the importance of having these citizens released well before the annual monsoon season begins. Already there are reports that one of the camps is flooded, which has created serious health issues. I am informed that the camps are providing shelter in tents, which are extremely overcrowded with many families. The weather at the moment is dry with temperatures up to 42 degrees. There have been outbreaks of diseases such as meningitis, hepatitis and typhoid throughout the camps. As you can appreciate, there are pregnant women, children, the elderly, the injured and the disabled trying to survive in this environment. On top of these health issues, as one can imagine, there is the development of psychological trauma.

Both activists have different stories and different reasons for campaigning to bring these issues to our attention. Saran’s story, in part—which I quote from the internet—is as follows:

I got my first chance to visit my hometown in 2003, where I visited Jaffna in the North of Sri Lanka. It was a trip that I could say was bittersweet, mixed with many happy yet haunting memories. We stayed in a house with our relatives, relatives who I never knew I had. The walls of the house had many bullet holes, in fact nearly all the houses in the area had been damaged by the war.

Sadly, it is these same family members and friends who are currently detained within internment camps, even though they have homes and belongings of their own. They have become displaced within their own land and that is something they struggle with everyday. In my mind, there is no excuse for them to be there, the war is over, so why must they continue to suffer in camps? Along with them are 300,000 other Tamils, who are longing to return to their homes and homeland.

When I hear news of 1,400 people dying in a single camp (Manik Farm) and reports of forced prostitution, starvation, lack of proper sanitation and shelter, I can’t help but picture the faces of my family and friends. Images of my relatives, cousins, aunts and uncles flood my mind and I am engulfed in grief at the thought of them and what they are going through.

This walk is symbolic for me; it is 300km or 300,000 meters. I am walking a meter for every life which suffers in these camps today. I aim to create awareness about their plight, and I ask for your help, so that together we can help release the Tamils and re-settle them in their villages again. I hope that we can provide them with the basic necessities and human rights that we freely enjoy as Australians.

Vishna’s story is, in part, as follows:

I first visited the island of Sri Lanka in 2004 at the age of 15, and I must say it was an experience that definitely changed the way that I look at the world. I gained so much from that 4 month trip, where I spent time helping victims of the Boxing Day Tsunami. The damage caused by the Tsunami was terrible and I volunteered to look after children, teach infants and adults English and was able to learn more about Tamil culture and traditions, that I had not experienced back home in Australia

All over the news, appear the images of howling children who have just been orphaned, and piles of human bodies stacked upon each other due to disease and starvation within the camps. The people and their faces have permanently entren-ched themselves into my mind.

300km is a long way, but to think that as I write this, there is a child crying in their mother’s arms for food, or that an old grandparent is suffering uncontrollably from not being able to access ade-quate medicines, and so many other forms of unimaginable torture, I know that my walk is only the least I can do. By carrying out this walk, I hope and urge the Australian government and the general public to apply as much pressure as they can muster on the Sri Lankan government to release the 300,000 Tamils detained within camps.

Despite having different backgrounds and experiences, the young men had one common goal, and that is to help those Tamils in Sri Lanka to have access to what we have taken for granted: freedom, good health, wholesome food, water and an adequate roof over their heads.

The UN High Commissioner for Human Rights has called for unrestricted humanitarian access to the displacement camps and for an independent and credible international investigation into allegations which have consistently surfaced in the course of the fighting regarding serious violations of international humanitarian and human rights laws on the part of both sides. I am informed that the UN agents are not being granted full access to the displacement camps. Should this be factual, all restrictions on the access to the displacement camps preventing the successful work of the UN agencies, the ICRC and humanitarian NGOs must be removed to ensure that satisfactory medicine, food and other basic assistance can be provided. As the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights noted, this ‘will make the difference between life, illness and even death to many’.

The concerns and stories Seran and Vishna raised are very consistent with what I have been told through other persons from Sri Lanka. Last Sunday I was invited to attend the official opening of the Crusade for Peace and Justice, Australian Tamil Congress national launch at Toowong in Brisbane. Following the official launch a further guest speaker from the Queensland chapter of Amnesty International spoke of concerns their organisation holds for those people in Sri Lanka. In closing, we must continue to raise the concerns that inspired Seran and Vishna to walk 300 kilometres to campaign to save those 300,000 Tamil civilian lives in the camps of Sri Lanka.