The way is long, and they shall keep sailing in the endless Indian Ocean. They have been traveling for around two weeks since leaving Sri Lanka, yet there is no land in sight. The tides are high after the summer monsoon season. Asylum seekers traveling by boat from Sri Lanka in search of refuge take huge risks. The boats are overcrowded and are designed for fishing near the coast, but certainly not for such a long journey across the open sea.
There are many factors that push people in Sri Lanka to flee to Australia and other destinations, says Alan Keenan, a South Asia expert at the International Crisis Group. "For many of the Tamil asylum-seekers there is a sense of desperation at the lack of political freedom and lack of economic opportunities, as their land and communities in the north and east are under the control of a virtually 100 percent Sinhalese Army that shows little respect for basic rights."
For Sinhalese it is more likely to be economic desperation that drives them to take the great risks of illegal travel by boat, but some may well be fleeing to escape politically-motivated violence, Keenan added.
Despite disagreeing on a number of issues in their home country, the destination for both Tamils and Sinhalese is the same: Australia, a country some 6,000 kilometers (roughly 3,700 miles) away. For the refugees, it is the "promised land." Australia is regarded as a symbol of security, prosperity, and a better life. It also provides more space, given that in Australia; three residents share a square-kilometer, statistically speaking.
And yet, the Australian government is closing its doors on refugees. "Stop the boats" was the main slogan during Prime Minister Tony Abott’s election campaign last year. With slogans like these, his Liberal Party of Australia won the parliamentary vote. Since taking the reins of power, Abbott has relentlessly been implementing his anti-refugee agenda. For nine months, no refugee boat has reached the Australian coast.
Refugee boats are usually intercepted at sea in advance. Recently, Australian coast guards stopped a vessel on high seas hundreds of kilometers from the Australian coast. There were 41 people on board from Sri Lanka. After processing their asylum requests via video conference, the Australian authorities rejected all applications and handed over the boat to the Sri Lankan navy.
"Offshore processing" – as the Australian government calls this method – has received the wrath of international human rights organizations. Refugee Council, an umbrella organization of Australian refugee organizations, calls it a "flagrant violation of the international refugees’ convention."
Massive protests against this practice seem to have yielded some results. A ship from Sri Lanka carrying 153 people – mostly Tamils from refugee camps in southern India – was stopped by Australian coast guard few days ago. This boat, too, was immediately handed over to Sri Lankan authorities. But the Australian Supreme Court now intends to review the rights organizations’ allegations over handling of asylum seekers coming to the country.
Graeme McGregor, an Australian refugee expert at Amnesty International, criticized the offshore processing of asylum seekers via video conference.
"This denies the asylum seekers any chance of a fair and just hearing. Each individual is asked four questions before they are transferred to Sri Lankan authorities at an extremely high risk of returning genuine refugees to torture, persecution or death," McGregor told DW.
"As a matter of course, all refugees sent back to Sri Lanka are put on trial, explains Alan Keenan from the International Crisis Group. "Some are later released; others are sentenced and put in jail."
Any who were already facing persecution on political or ethnic or religious grounds will be at greater risk of arbitrary detention, torture, or enforced disappearance than they were before leaving, the analyst added. In Sri Lanka, "illegally" exiting the country is a crime that can be punished with up to two years in prison. "There are documented cases of failed asylum seekers from various countries being tortured after being forcibly sent back to Sri Lanka," Keenan explained.
Australia's refugee policy has long been under fire from international rights organizations, which criticize Canberra, among other things, for maintaining a network of refugee camps in partner countries such as Papua New Guinea and Nauru.
Under the previous Australian government, asylum applications were examined for the onward journey to Australia in these places. But the incumbent government in Canberra now prevents this. It also plans to permanently accommodate the refugees in neighboring states. Canberra signed an agreement with Cambodia this April for the construction of a detention center for asylum seekers.
The Abbott government has made it much more difficult for asylum seekers to enter the country. Those who manage come to Australia illegally have no chance of a permanent residence. Instead, a three-year temporary protection visa is issued. In addition, the refugees are not entitled to legal advice and health insurance provided by the state. In addition, they are subjected to rigid rules: For example, whoever curses or spits in public, risks immediate deportation.