The deportation of up to fifty Tamil refused asylum seekers to Sri Lanka on a charter flight on 28 September once again focused attention on what happens to those returned to torturing states, and who monitors them.
The charter flight went ahead in the teeth of warnings of torture from organisations including the Sri Lanka Campaign, Human Rights Watch, Amnesty International and Freedom from Torture (formerly the Medical Foundation for the Care of Victims of Torture), and minus a number of passengers who had managed to secure injunctions to prevent their removal. Freedom from Torture has seen around 400 new Tamil patients in the two years since the LTTE’s defeat, many of whom bear scars of recent torture, and Human Rights Watch said, ‘The Sri Lankan government continues to show shocking disregard for the due process rights of anyone deemed linked to the Tamil Tigers. Those detained have been tortured and “disappeared”.'
In a 2007 asylum case, the Tribunal observed that, for Tamils returned to Sri Lanka, coming from London (or another centre of fundraising for the Tamil Tigers), having made an asylum claim abroad, lack of an ID card and illegal departure from Sri Lanka were all factors which could give rise to suspicion of LTTE support and increased the risk of harsh interrogation and torture. In a 26 September letter sent to the High Court in order to pre-empt injunctions before the charter operation, the UK Border Agency (UKBA) claimed that up-to-date evidence about Sri Lanka indicated that these risks for refused asylum seekers had reduced. Strikingly, it did not claim that the risks had disappeared. According to a Guardian report, though, UKBA claimed that ‘arrangements to monitor the welfare of deportees’ had been sub-contracted to the International Organization for Migration (IOM). When the IOM denied that it would be monitoring returnees, the UKBA fell back on assurances given by Sri Lankan intelligence officers that they did not torture returned asylum seekers – the officers alleged that many Sri Lankans had inflicted wounds on themselves in order to support asylum claims. And in a letter to Freedom from Torture’s head Keith Best, UKBA said that deportees were given the contact details of the British High Commission in Colombo, ‘and may contact them if they require any assistance’.
It is alarming that UKBA can quote, apparently uncritically, Sri Lankan intelligence officials’ accusations of self-mutilating Tamils in support of its claim that returned Tamils will be safe in their hands. The Agency clearly accepted that Tamils who were suspected of LTTE connections were being tortured in the past; how, then, can it give any credence at all to the assurances of the perpetrators that it never happened? And what is the use of the contact details for Our Man in Colombo – who has absolutely no power to intervene to stop the ill-treatment by a foreign state of one of its own nationals?
The dishonesty of these glib assurances is breathtaking. But it is not new; it is reminiscent of the experiences of Algerian national security deportees being returned to the jurisdiction of their brutal intelligence services under so-called diplomatic assurances which the Algerian government refused either to make official or to have independently monitored. Deportees and their relatives were given the contact details of the British Embassy in Algeria in case of difficulty. But when relatives rang, distraught, saying their sons were being held incommunicado, all the Embassy staff could do was to engage in polite fencing with Algerian diplomats. They had no right to enter the feared HQ of the security police where the men were held, much less visit or speak to them. And although the Special Immigration Appeals Commission (SIAC) had said the assurances could be policed by groups like Amnesty International and by Algerian human rights lawyers, Amnesty’s reports of endemic torture were marginalised and the Algerian lawyers’ allegations of their clients’ torture rejected.
The Tamils being returned now do not even have the minimal protection of such diplomatic assurances. The stark reality brought home by these deportations is that the government is not interested in monitoring the welfare of deportees; it neither knows nor cares about the fate of those it returns to torturing states.
Read an IRR News Story: ‘Return of Algerian refugees’