A British Foreign Office Minister has refuted medical evidence obtained by Human Rights Watch that Sri Lanka is torturing Tamils after they are deported from Britain back to the Indian Ocean island. During his most recent ministerial trip to Sri Lanka’s capital, Colombo, on 1 February, Alistair Burt MP said ‘the UK has no direct evidence’ of the torture – contrary to the accusations of human rights activists.
In September 2012, Human Rights Watch recommended that Britain should immediately suspend deportations of ethnic Tamils with ‘real or imputed links to the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam’, or those who had engaged in activities that may be viewed as anti-government. The organization also said it had sent to the British Immigration Minister evidence, supported by medical documentation, of 13 cases of alleged torture of failed Tamil asylum seekers on return to Sri Lanka.
As I write this, the British media have still not reported on Burt’s comments. The Sri Lankan Ministry of Defence has seized upon Burt’s comments and proudly republished them on its website. Ironically, its press release quotes the BBC. Yes, the BBC’s correspondent in Colombo, Charles Haviland, did report Burt’s visit. However, he only posted the news on the BBC’s Tamil and Sinhala language stations.
Burt, who has Sri Lanka within his portfolio of responsibilities, made his statement at a critical moment. The UK Border Agency (UKBA) appeared in court on 5 February to defend its controversial ‘country guidance’ on Sri Lanka, which insists mass deportations to the island are safe. Immigration barristers are set to cross-examine senior civil servants in the UKBA and Foreign and Commonwealth Office at a week-long hearing in Central London. Campaigners hope a successful ruling could bring an end to the wave of specially chartered deportation flights to Colombo, organized by the Conservatives since June 2011.
Burt’s credibility as an objective spokesperson on Sri Lankan matters was jeopardized in December 2011 when the Bureau of Investigative Journalism exposed him as a connection for PR firm Bell Pottinger. The Rajapaksa regime reportedly dealt with Bell Pottinger around this time.
Burt’s fact-finding trip included a visit to a Tamil refugee camp, accompanied by an entourage of Sinhalese soldiers. When Burt attempted to interview a Tamil woman, a military officer began recording the lady on his camera phone. Footage available on TamilNet shows the woman looking visibly intimidated. The Foreign and Commonwealth Office’s Flickr page tries to portray a less hostile atmosphere at the camp by cropping many soldiers out of the frame.
Burt’s recent comments echo a previous claim he made before a mass expulsion of Tamil asylum seekers last year. A month before the UKBA’s fourth charter flight to Sri Lanka, Burt wrote a letter to Freedom From Torture, dated 23 January 2012, in which he insisted that ‘there have been no substantiated allegations of mistreatment on return’.
Activists fear that the UKBA is organizing another mass expulsion of Tamil refugees to Sri Lanka on 28 February 2013.
Find out more about the resistance to deportations so far on the Tamil Channel.
Phil Miller is from Stop Deportations.