Sri Lanka

The numbers of Sri Lankan asylum seekers coming to Australia seeking refugee status is rising. With 2,345 protection visa applications lodged by Sri Lankans in 2012,[1] over one third of all asylum-seekers in Australia originate from either Afghanistan or Sri Lanka.[2] Despite political rhetoric,[3] the vast majority of Sri Lankan asylum seekers arriving by boat are found to be genuine refugees. Over 81% of rejected DIAC applications from irregular maritime arrivals are overturned upon Independent Merits Review/Independent Protection Assessment [4]

While most refugee flows stem from wartime conditions or dictatorships, the situation in Sri Lanka poses an interesting exception. With the 26-year-long conflict between the government forces and the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) ending in 2009, ‘improvement and stabilisation in conditions’ was widely regarded as inevitable.[5] This has led to the Australian government holding a somewhat skewed perception of the situation in Sri Lanka.

In April 2010, the Australian government suspended the processing of asylum claims from Sri Lanka on the basis that the Tamil minority could now live ‘reasonably safely’.[6] This view was reinforced by acts of apparent advancement by Sri Lankan President Rajapaksa, including the appointment of a Lessons Learnt Reconciliation Commission (LLRC) to investigate human rights abuses and the implementation of a National Human Rights Action Plan (NHRAP) in 2011.[7] However, despite the Sri Lankan High Commissioner, Admiral Thisara Samarasinghe, recently stating that Sri Lankans no longer need to seek asylum,[8] reports indicate that the Sri Lankan government has continued its assault on democracy and failed to take any significant steps toward providing accountability for war crimes committed during the conflict.[9]

Thus, what was once a country marred by internal violence, the situation in Sri Lanka has become one of a deteriorating governance crisis. The growing ethnic tension and denial of minority rights has been exemplified by the dismantling of the judiciary and other democratic checks on the executive and military. This situation is worsened by the Rajapaksa government’s refusal to comply with the UN Human Rights Council’s (UNHRC) March 2012 and March 2013 resolutions on reconciliation and accountability.[10] Further, while the government claims to have implemented many of the LLRC recommendations, the most critical issues have, thus far, been ignored.[11]

Lack of Accountability 

Sri Lanka has made no progress toward ensuring justice for the victims of human rights violations committed during the conflict between the government and the LTTE.[12] These abuses were perpetrated by both sides in the conflict and include the indiscriminate shelling of civilians and their use as ‘human shields’. [13] With Sri Lankan officials, including the country’s President and senior diplomats, facing murder indictments in Swiss, German,US and Australian courts,[14] a lack of internal accountability remains a key issue in Sri Lanka.

In March 2012 and 2013, the UNHRC adopted resolutions finding that the LLRC failed to adequately address allegations of violations of international law. It requested that the government expeditiously present a comprehensive plan detailing the steps it had taken to implement the LLRC’s recommendations and to address accountability. The Sri Lankan government’s response was to publicly threaten human rights defenders who had advocated for the resolution.[15] While the government has since announced the adoption of an action plan, the scheme is criticised for its vague requirements for ‘looking into’ civilian deaths, and overall the lack of transparency and independence.[16]

‘Authoritarian Turn’

Government attacks on the judiciary and political dissent highlight an authoritarian turn that threatens stability and peace in Sri Lanka.[17] President Rajapaksa and his brothers continue to accumulate power at the expense of democratic institutions.[18] The impeachment of the Chief Justice in January this year highlights the weakness of political opposition.[19]

On 15 November 2012, the UN Special Rapporteur on Independence of Judges and Lawyers released a statement criticising the impeachment, stating that “the misuse of disciplinary proceedings as a reprisals mechanism against independent judges is unacceptable.”[20] Similar calls to restore the independence of the marginalised National Human Rights Commission (NHRC) have been ignored. [21]

Violence, Arbitrary Detention and Enforced Disappearances

Gangs linked to government-allied political parties, including the Eelam People’s Democratic Party, Tamil People’s Liberation Tigers and the Sri Lanka Freedom Party, have been blamed for robberies, abductions, rapes, assaults and murders throughout Sri Lanka.[22] There are frequent reports of people being taken into white vans and later dumped, or never seen again.[23] Political activists, returning displaced persons, and former LTTE members are targets.[24]

In April 2012, nearly 220 Tamils in the Trincomalee area were arrested and held for several days without charge in military detention camps.[25] Further, Tamils who returned to Sri Lanka, including deported asylum seekers, reported being detained and accused of having LTTE links or association with anti-government activities whilst overseas.[26]

Although formal emergency regulations were lifted in 2011, the Sri Lankan police and security forces continue to enjoy broad detention powers.[27] With the  Prevention of Terrorism Act (PTA) 1979 permitting detention without charge for up to 18 months, an abusive detention regime persists in Sri Lanka.

Attacks on Civil Society and Clampdowns on Free Speech

Suppression of expression and peaceful dissent is common in Sri Lanka.[28] Reports indicate that both human rights defenders and individuals expressing anti-government sentiment are portrayed as ‘traitors’ and subjected to anonymous threats and smear campaigns.[29] The government has taken no action against cabinet minister, Mervyn de Silva, who threatened activists.[30]

Increased surveillance and clampdowns on free speech have been reported by Amnesty International.[31] Throughout 2012, the government shut down at least five news websites critical of the government.[32]  Sunday leader reporter, Faraz Shauketaly, was gunned down by unidentified assailants in February this year.[33] This follows the 2009 shooting of Lasantha Wickrematunge, the Sunday leader’s previous editor. No investigations have been conducted into these deaths.[34]

Internally Displaced Persons (IDPs) and Militarisation

Despite the government’s claims of decreased military presence in the north and east, reports indicate that military personnel still frequently intervene in civilian life.[35] Fishermen and farmers report that armed forces continuing to encroach into their coastal areas and onto their land, impacting their livelihoods.[36]

More than 93,000 conflict-displaced people remain living in camps, with host communities or in transit situations.[37] Sri Lanka has no legislation governing the protection of internally displaced persons (‘IDPs’). A bill drafted by the NHRC in 2008 has not been taken forward.[38]

It is integral to critically engage with independent evidence when determining the safety and stability in Sri Lanka for refugee claims. A focus on mainstream media and statements by Sri Lankan officials has the capacity to distort the true situation and could lead to devastating consequences when those truly fearing persecution are denied refugee protection.

Jess Thrower


[1] UN High Commissioner for Refugees, UNHCR Asylum Trends 2012: Levels and Trends in Industrialized Countries (21 March 2013) <http://www.refworld.org/docid/514ad4e02.html&gt;, 27.

[2] Ibid, 8.

[3] SBS, Sri Lanka ‘welcomes’ boat arrivals (11 April 2013) <http://www.sbs.com.au/news/article/1755142/Sri-Lanka-welcomes-asylum-boat-returns&gt;.

[4] Department of Immigration and Citizenship (2012) Asylum Trends – Australia: 2011-12 Annual Publication, Program Evidence and Knowledge Section, 30.

[5] The Hon Stephen Smith MP, Australian Minister for Foreign Affairs and Trade, Changes to Australia’s immigration processing system (9 April 2010) <http://www.foreignminister.gov.au/releases/2010/fa-s100409.html&gt;.

[6] Larry Marshall, ‘Introduction: Sri Lanka after the war’ (2010) 22(3) Global Change, Peace & Security 327.

[7] Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade, Sri Lanka country brief (August 2012) <http://www.dfat.gov.au/geo/sri_lanka/sri_lanka_country_brief.html&gt;.

[8] Lateline, High Commissioner says Sri Lankans don’t need to seek asylum (10 April 2013) <http://www.abc.net.au/lateline/content/2013/s3734398.htm&gt;.

[9] Human Rights Watch (HRW), World Report 2013: Sri Lanka (22 April 2013) <http://www.hrw.org/world-report/2013/country-chapters/sri-lanka>.

[10] BBC, UN passes resolution against Sri Lanka rights record (21 March 2013) <http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/world-asia-21873551&gt;.

[11] International Crisis Group (ICG), Sri Lanka’s Authoritarian Turn: The Need for International Action (20 February 2013) Asia Report N°243 <http://www.refworld.org/docid/5124deb32.html&gt;.

[12] HRW, above n 9, 2.

[13] Ibid.

[14] Amnesty International, Amnesty International Annual Report 2012 – Sri Lanka (24 May 2012) <http://www.refworld.org/docid/4fbe390d46.html&gt;; The Conversation, Experts respond: indicting the Sri Lankan president for war crimes (25 October 2011) <http://theconversation.com/experts-respond-indicting-the-sri-lankan-president-for-war-crimes-3990&gt;.

[15] HRW, above n 9, 3.

[16] Ibid.

[17] ICG, above n 11, 3.

[18] HRW, above n 9, 3.

[19] ICG, above n 11, 3.

[20] United Kingdom: Foreign and Commonwealth Office, Human Rights and Democracy: The 2012 Foreign & Commonwealth Office Report – Sri Lanka (15 April 2013) <http://www.refworld.org/docid/516fb7bf16.html&gt;.

[21] HRW, above n 9, 2.

[22] Amnesty International, There are no human rights in Sri Lanka (1 May 2013) <http://www.refworld.org/docid/5183b25b4.html&gt;; Human Rights Watch (HRW), We Will Teach You a Lesson” – Sexual Violence against Tamils by Sri Lankan Security Forces (26 February 2013) <http://www.refworld.org/docid/5130850f2.html&gt;.

[23] Amnesty International, above n 22.

[24] Amnesty International, above n 14.

[25] HRW, above n 9.

[26] Ibid.

[27] Ibid.

[28] Amnesty International, Sri Lanka’s assault on dissent (30 April 2013) ASA 37/003/2013 <http://www.refworld.org/docid/51875d824.html&gt;.

[29] Amnesty International, above n 14, 3.

[30] BBC Colombo, Sri Lanka minister Mervyn Silva threatens journalists (23 March 2012) <http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/world-asia-17491832&gt;.

[31] Amnesty International, above n 14; Committee to Protect Journalists, Sri Lankan daily attacked again, twice in two weeks (15 April 2013) <http://www.refworld.org/docid/518cafc718.html&gt;.

[32] HRW, above n 9.

[33] BBC, Sri Lanka Sunday Leader reporter Faraz Shauketaly shot (16 February 2013) <http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/world-asia-21482317&gt;.

[34] HRW, above n 9.

[35] Sri Lanka Guardian, Militarisation, Lanka Style (10 February 2013) <http://www.srilankaguardian.org/2013/02/militarisation-lankan-style.html&gt;.

[36] UN High Commissioner for Refugees, Sri Lanka’s displacement chapter nears end with closure of Menik Farm (27 September 2012) <http://www.refworld.org/docid/50654eca2.html&gt;.

[37] Internal Displacement Monitoring Centre (IDMC), Global Overview 2012: People internally displaced by conflict and violence – Sri Lanka (29 April 2013) <http://www.refworld.org/docid/517fb0516.html&gt;.

[38] Ibid.

1 Comment

Filed under Refugee flows

One response to “Sri Lanka

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