TIME Sri Lanka

Hundreds of Tamils Have Simply Vanished on the Perilous Sea Voyage to Australia

Australian Navy boat comes alongside a boat carrying 50 asylum seekers after it arrived at Flying Fish Cove on Christmas Island
An Australian navy boat, front left, comes alongside a boat carrying 50 asylum seekers after it arrived at Flying Fish Cove on Christmas Island, about 2,600 km (1,600 miles) northwest of Perth, on Aug. 7, 2011. © Stringer Australia / Reuters—REUTERS

According to one eerie estimate, 800 asylum seekers — men, women and children — have set off for Australia in the past three years and have simply never been heard from again

Antonyamma, a Tamil refugee from Sri Lanka living in the South Indian state of Tamil Nadu, last heard from her daughter Mary more than a year ago when the younger woman had boarded a boat heading for Australia, along with seven other members of her family, including four children aged under 9.

In total, 63 people from their community were on the same boat, which left the Indian port of Kochi on May 1, 2013. None have been heard from since.

“They didn’t tell me they were going until they were on the boat, because they knew I’d stop them,” said Antonyamma, in between sobs, on the phone from her home in the city of Madurai.

One rights group — the Adventist Development and Relief Agency (ADRA), which works extensively with Sri Lankan Tamils in India — estimates that 800 asylum seekers have disappeared over a three-year period, while trying to travel from South India to Australia by sea. It’s an appalling and largely unpublicized figure, if true.

Most of those who make the perilous journey have lived in India for years, having fled the decades-long Sri Lankan civil war, which ended in 2009, or the persecution of Tamils that persists in the war’s aftermath. However, while they are free from violence in India, they mostly live below the poverty line and are denied citizenship rights. The desperate hope of a new life is what drives them to pay exorbitant fees — around $2,500 — to smugglers who promise them safe passage to Australia and who vow that, after a year or two in a detention camp, they will be free to gain Australian citizenship.

However, successive Australian governments have taken a hard-line approach to asylum seekers. While arrival numbers are relatively small by international standards, it’s a stance that wins favor from voters.

Last week, the conservative Australian government returned, for the first time, a boatload of Tamil asylum seekers to Sri Lanka, even though the vessel had sailed from India, and even though the asylum seekers could face imprisonment or even torture upon arrival.

A second boatload, said to be carrying 153 people, is now in limbo on the high seas because Australia’s High Court has imposed an interim injunction against the repatriation of any more asylum seekers until the matter can be heard fully by the court. Lawyers acting on behalf of the 153 argue that the Australian government will be in breach of international law if it returns refugees to Sri Lanka.

“There’s no authentic data, but we’re told that people [who return to Sri Lanka] are put in prison,” says Valan Satchithananada, the Chennai-based project director of ADRA.

Based on sources inside India’s refugee camps, ADRA claims up to 1,000 Tamils have set sail to Australia from India since 2009. Of those, only 120 have been heard from.

“Everyone desperately wants to know what’s happened to all those hundreds of people who have left India and disappeared,” says Satchithananada.

The UNHCR’s Indian office provides a much lower figure, saying that deaths by drowning are hard to verify. “We have received around 40 representations on missing Sri Lankan refugees, and these have been forwarded to the International Committee of the Red Cross,” its spokesperson stated.

The Indian Red Cross says that according to its records, 110 people are missing. However, it admits that its figures are based on inquiries in just 35 of Tamil Nadu’s 112 refugee camps.

There are suspicions that some of the missing might be in the hands of Somali pirates, as family members have received calls from Somali phone numbers. “We’re taking the claims seriously and investigating with support from the Red Cross in Somalia and Kenya,” says Red Cross tracing officer Nagarajan Krishnamoorthy.

Many family members, however, will never hear anything. Senthura Selvan hasn’t seen her elder sister Mayura since the 26-year-old classical-dance teacher boarded a boat in Chennai bound for Australia in September 2012. Their brother sailed on a separate boat and is now in Australian detention. But nothing has been heard from Mayura, Senthura says.

“We could have eaten just kanji [rice gruel] but stayed happy in India, all together,” said her mother, who declined to give her name. “Bring my kids back. Please, bring my kids back.”

TIME Sri Lanka

Sri Lanka Detains British Tourist for Having a Buddha Tattoo

A Buddha statue at Gangaramaya Temple in Colombo, Sri Lanka, on May 26, 2013 Dinuka Liyanawatte—Reuters

Arrest is the latest in a series of cases against foreign nationals based on perceived threats to Buddhism

A female British tourist in Sri Lanka has been detained and faces deportation for having a Buddha tattoo on her arm.

The woman was arrested at Colombo’s international airport on Monday upon arrival from India, Agence France-Presse reports.

“She was taken before the Negombo magistrate who ordered her to be detained prior to deportation,” read a police statement.

The charges against the woman were not specified, but in a series of previous cases, Sri Lanka has shown a high sensitivity to perceived threats to Buddhism, the nation’s majority religion.

In March, a British tourist was barred from entering the country for showing “disrespect” by having a Buddha tattooed on his arm; in August 2013, three French tourists received a suspended prison sentence for kissing a Buddha statue; and in 2010, American rap star Akon was prevented from visiting Sri Lanka after featuring skimpily clad women in front of a Buddha statue in one of his music videos.

[AFP]

TIME Sri Lanka

The U.N. Will Launch an International Investigation of Alleged War Crimes in Sri Lanka

Sri Lanka Human Rights
Sri Lankan government supporters demonstrate prior to the vote by the U.N. Human Rights Council AP

The probe comes after years of mounting pressure and several U.S.-led resolutions

The U.N. Human Rights Council voted Thursday to open an international investigation into the alleged war crimes committed by government forces and the Tamil Tiger rebel group during the long and bloody civil war that ended in 2009, the New York Times reports.

The approval comes after years of mounting pressure and several U.S.-led resolutions criticizing the Sri Lankan government for the lack of progress in the investigations of such crimes, which include the shelling of civilians, summary executions, blocking food and aid to civilians and recruiting child soldiers.

The government in Colombo has vehemently refused all calls for an external investigation.

The probe will have an open-ended mandate and will focus on the bloody end-game of the decades-long war from 2002 to 2009.

[New York Times]

TIME Sri Lanka

Sri Lanka’s Tamils Are Still Facing Torture and Sexual Attacks

Tamil demonstrators protest outside Downing Street in  London
Tamil demonstratorsprotest Sri Lanka's human rights record outside Downing Street in London in November 2013. © Luke MacGregor / Reuters—REUTERS

Years after the civil war's end, Tamil survivors say they are subject to systematic violence from security forces

A damning new report alleges that Sri Lanka’s security forces continue to persecute the country’s Tamils minority five years after the ending of the country’s bloody civil war. It claims that the policy is “approved by the highest levels of government.”

The report, produced by South African human rights lawyer and U.N. adviser Yasmin Sooka, the Bar Human Rights Committee, England and Wales, and the International Truth & Justice Project, Sri Lanka, is based on the testimony of 40 survivors who fled to the U.K. seeking refuge. Nearly half tried to commit suicide.

The authors compiled harrowing tales of severe torture and sexual abuse in custody, almost all of which took took place after the war ended, some as recently as Feb. 2014.

“The cases of torture, rape and sexual violence described in this report are just a small sample of those crimes likely to have been committed against Tamils,” said Sooka in a statement. “The international community must act now otherwise such atrocities will continue to define post-conflict Sri Lanka.”

The United Nation’s Human Rights Council will vote today on whether to launch an international probe into Sri Lanka’s alleged war crimes during the three-decades-long ethnic conflict that ended in 2009.

 

TIME Sri Lanka

Sri Lanka Infuriated By U.S. Suggestions That It’s Tardy On Postwar Reconciliation

Police officers and doctors dig up skeletons at a construction site in the former war zone in Mannar
Police officers and doctors dig up skeletons at a newly discovered mass grave in a former war zone in Sri Lanka. The U.S. criticizes the government for moving too slow on probing alleged war crimes. © Dinuka Liyanawatte / Reuters

Washington says Colombo is moving too slowly in probing alleged war crimes. Colombo reacts predictably

Colombo has accused Washington of “polarizing” the country after a U.S. State Department official said the world was losing patience with Sri Lanka’s failure to achieve adequate reconciliation and accountability since the ending a civil war more than four years ago.

U.S. Assistant Secretary of State for South and Central Asia, Nisha Biswal, said Saturday that the U.S. will sponsor a third resolution at the U.N. Human Rights Council demanding that Sri Lanka address the issue.

Sri Lanka’s External Affairs Ministry immediately condemned what it said were “reckless and irresponsible statements without evidence,” AP reports.

The ministry said the criticisms raised by the U.S. only served “to polarize the communities” that had been affected by the 25 year-long war between the government and Tamil insurgents. The war ended in 2009.

In two previous resolutions at the U.N. human rights body, the U.S. called on Colombo to probe alleged war crimes on both sides. Sri Lankan troops have been accused of targeting civilians and hospitals during the conflict, while the rebels face allegations that they used civilians as human shields, recruited child soldiers and killed civilians trying to flee.

U.N. rights chief Navi Pillay has said that the Human Rights Council should launch its own investigation if the Sri Lankan government does not show sufficient progress on post-war reconciliation before the bi-annual session of the council in March.

[AP]

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