The Australian government says there was no credible evidence that Sri Lankans who were returned home were being beaten or harassed.
In an interview with the Australian media today, Immigration Minister Chris Bowen said that Australia will continue to send back illegal asylum seekers from Sri Lanka.
Bowen said the Sri Lankan government was complying with its law and is complying with its obligations.
Interview with Alexandra Kirk, ABC AM
Tony Eastley: The Immigration Minister Chris Bowen has defended the controversial practice of ‘screening out’ asylum seekers. In recent months, the Immigration Department has forcibly returned home hundreds of Sri Lankans within days of them arriving in Australia by boat.
Mr Bowen has confirmed his department has put on hold plans to return a group of 56 men following High Court action this week.
The Immigration Minister, who’s in Papua New Guinea, has spoken to AM’s Alexandra Kirk.
Chris Bowen: We had people who had very clearly come to Australia for economic purposes. It is completely appropriate that swift action is taken to return them to Sri Lanka.
Alexandra KIRK: The process has been criticised, saying that you don’t take – the Department of Immigration doesn’t take claims of persecution seriously, that you don’t seek to get to the bottom of it.
Bowen: No, that’s not right. We do consider what people tell us, we do consider what people say to us.
Now, we often have people saying to us that they are here for purposes other than claiming asylum – they are swiftly returned. Where the Department of Immigration makes an assessment that that’s the case, they are swiftly returned.
There are people who are considered for this and who are not swiftly returned. There are people who are considered for this and have their claims processed one way or another.
So this is a very appropriate process. It’s a process which does make sure that where people come to Australia for economic purposes – which is being sold by people smugglers, ‘You can go to Australia even if you are eventually returned after several years you’ll be able to work’. This is one of the mechanisms we are using to deal with that.
Yes, it’s controversial but it’s entirely appropriate. We have returned a significant number of people to Sri Lanka and will continue to do so. And I do think obviously where people are being sold the product of economic migration to Australia, this is a very powerful message to them that that is not a product that is available to them.
Kirk: There are reports that some of the last group sent back to Sri Lanka last Friday were jailed as soon as they landed. Were they?
Bowen: No, my understanding is that when people are returned to Sri Lanka the police interview them. It is an offence to leave Sri Lanka illegally but that is a process which is dealt with under Sri Lankan law and in full accordance with Sri Lanka law in a public fashion.
I don’t believe that people are jailed indefinitely on return. There has been the process all the way along that people who are returning voluntary and voluntarily are interviewed by the police and Sri Lankan law then applies.
Kirk: And are you satisfied that that is all that happened?
Bowen: I’m satisfied that the Sri Lankan government is complying with its law and is complying with its obligations. I’m satisfied that when we return people to Sri Lanka who have come to Australia for economic reasons then they are dealt with appropriate in Sri Lanka.
Kirk: Do you monitor what happens to the Sri Lankans that you send back?
Bowen: We do have measures in place, together with the Sri Lankan government, to ensure that measures are appropriate. Now of course when you return people to Sri Lanka, Sri Lanka I believe it is fulfilling its international obligations and I’ve not seen any evidence at all, any evidence at all that that is not the case.
Kirk: Despite reports that some of the Sri Lankans who have been returned are harassed and beaten?
Bowen: Well you’re making an assertion there, Alex. I have not seen that assertion made credibly elsewhere and –
Kirk: – And you don’t believe that to be the case?
Bowen: Well, I already told you Alex. I believe that Sri Lankan law applies, that people – that it is an offence on Sri Lankan law to leave Sri Lanka illegally, and that law is applied in accordance with Sri Lankan statute.
Kirk: Have you suspended all involuntary returns to Sri Lanka for the time being because of this High Court case?
Bowen: No, not at all. Returns to Sri Lanka will continue.
Kirk: So only one group have not been returned as a result of this High Court case?
Bowen: Well, as a result of the High Court case we made an undertaking yesterday to give the lawyers 24-hours’ notice of any return to Sri Lanka and that’s the undertaking that we’ve made and that’s the undertaking that we’ll be delivering on.
Kirk: But you still intend to return them?
Bowen: Well, there’ll be a range of circumstances in place for those individuals and I won’t go into those individual cases. But the question to me about whether returns to Sri Lanka will continue in a general sense; where people arrive in Australia and they do not exercise our international obligations then we will continue to return them to Sri Lanka.