The slow increase in the number of asylum seekers arriving by boat in Australian waters is creating a slowly increasing number of antagonistic public comments and complaints. Immigration Minister Chris Evans understandably points to the deteriorating position in parts of Afghanistan and Pakistan as a factor, as well as noting a “second supply chain” from Sri Lanka.
It is an unfortunate sign of how easily our priorities and perspective can be distorted. The arrival of a few hundred Sri Lankan asylum seekers is seen by some as a serious problem, even though those assessed as not being refugees are being returned.
Yet the Sri Lankan government continues to detain over a quarter of a million men, women and children in over-crowded, unsafe internment camps with barely a concern being voiced. This piece by Jeff Sparrow notes that the silence about this situation extends to most other western countries too. The piece also contains some descriptions from The Guardian and elsewhere about the awful conditions in the camps and other human rights breaches.
Human Rights Watch has done their usual thorough job of detailing the situation facing hundreds of thousands of displaced people.
Since March 2008, the Sri Lankan government has confined virtually everyone displaced by the war between the government and the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) to detention camps, depriving them of their liberty and freedom of movement in violation of international law. As of September 15, 2009, the government was holding 264,583 internally displaced persons in detention camps and hospitals, according to the UN, while fewer than 12,000 have been released or returned home.
Human Rights Watch also list specific problems such as:
- Arbitrary detention and enforced disappearance;
- Inability to trace missing relatives: The International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC), which often traces family members, has been barred from the main camps since mid-July);
- Lack of protection mechanisms in the camps: The military camp administration is preventing humanitarian organizations, including the UN and the ICRC, from undertaking effective monitoring and protection in the camps;
- Conditions in the camps and expected deterioration during the monsoon;
- Lack of access to proper medical care;
- Lack of transparency and information.
But it seems the prospect of a few hundred Sri Lankans arriving in Australia by boat, some of whom are undoubtedly fleeing this situation, is a much bigger problem than the human rights abuses being inflicted on as thousand times as many people in the place they have left.
As Jeff Sparrow said in noting the minimal concern being expressed internationally:
That’s why the situation in Sri Lanka matters so much. It’s not simply because there’s something fundamentally wrong about mass collective punishment. It’s because if the world doesn’t speak out, you can expect see the model put into action elsewhere.
ADDENDUM: Given my comment on the importance of not remaining silent, it is appropriate for me to note a debate in the House of Representatives on this topic back on 1 June 2009. The debate was to a motion moved by Labor Member for Fremantle, Melissa Parke. All of the 9 speakers from both Labor and Liberal provided balanced and non-partisan contributions, with the exception of Don Randall, the Liberal Member for Canning, who basically took the line that all atrocities were the fault of the LTTE, and there is no substance to any allegations of wrong doing by the Sri Lankan government.