Phil Miller is from Stop Deportations.


Phil Miller is from Stop Deportations.

Deportation of Tamils helped the Sri Lankan state

Sit down protest in London

The Sri Lankan state are said to be targeting the Tamil diaspora in London, who staged large anti-war protests during 2009 Southbanksteve under a Creative Commons Licence

It should now be much harder for Britain to deport Tamil asylum-seekers to Sri Lanka, after a new court ruling significantly revised the guidance for the country. Several important protection categories have been established, including for journalists, human rights activists and Tamil nationalists. The previous guidelines had allowed the UK Border Agency (UKBA) to deport Tamils on an almost industrial scale for 18 months from 2011 to 2013, despite mounting evidence that torture awaited those sent back to Sri Lanka.

On an unusually hot evening in London, immigration lawyers gathered on 12 July at the medieval Gray’s Inn for a briefing from the barristers who had battled assiduously in the courtroom to change the country guidance. The speakers gave practical advice on how solicitors should use the verdict to challenge deportations. ‘Look at your clients as if you are a Sri Lankan CID officer!’ exclaimed barrister Shivani Jegarajah, the leading counsel on the legal team, who warned that Tamil deportees are interrogated to establish their political connections.

From filming Tamil protesters in London, to developing face recognition software, there is a concerted attempt at using surveillance to stifle any criticism of Sri Lanka from the vast refugee communities living in exile. Evidence from expert witnesses strengthened my suspicion that the deportations from Britain were an integral part of the Sri Lankan State’s counter-insurgency campaign to prevent any resurgence of the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE), the main armed resistance group in a conflict which is decades long. The Judge concluded that ‘the focus of the Sri Lankan government’s concern has changed since the civil war ended in May 2009... The government’s present objective is to identify Tamil activists in the diaspora who are working for Tamil separatism and to destabilize the unitary Sri Lankan state.’

Most of these revelations came from the testimony of Professor Rohan Gunaratna, a terrorism ‘expert’ with close links to the Sri Lankan intelligence establishment. What is less often mentioned is that he heads a think-tank whose advisory committee includes Sir Richard Dearlove, former boss of British spy agency MI6. Gunaratna unashamedly introduced himself to the court as ‘the architect of the rehabilitation process’, in which 12,000 Tamils were indefinitely detained without trial at the end of the last war.

It seems that intelligence gathering even takes place at interviews with the Sri Lankan High Commission (SLHC) in London, where ostensibly the nationality of Tamil asylum-seekers is verified before the UKBA can forcibly remove them. Gunaratna confirmed that it was his ‘understanding that when being re-documented for return to Sri Lanka at SLHCs abroad, applicants were routinely asked about past LTTE links’. Arguably, the UKBA facilitated the identification of Tamil militants for the Sri Lankan authorities, before handing them over on a plate.

During the height of controversy around the deportations, the UK Foreign Office confidently assured campaigners that its man-on-the-ground, Malcolm Lewis (a ‘Migration Delivery Officer’), waited at the airport to ensure no deportees were detained or tortured upon disembarkation. But when cross-examined, Lewis admitted ‘that the Sri Lankan airport authorities were not stupid; they knew that the British High Commission’s, and indeed the world’s, eyes were on the returns process. The authorities would not be so “daft” as to harm returnees at the airport.’ It is particularly embarrassing for Lewis that Gunaratna then announced ‘there were no detention facilities at the airport; if a returnee was of interest by reason of past or current links with known LTTE front organizations abroad, they would be invited for interview once they had returned home, rather than at the airport.’

The late Tamil journalist and military analyst Sivaram explained that counter-insurgency is ‘about forcing the target population to lose its collective will to achieve the objective which you are trying to destroy or head off’. This court case, and the testimony of Rohan Gunaratna, firmly proves that the Tamil diaspora are part of the ‘target population’ which the Sri Lankan State seeks to control and suppress. Although Britain’s expulsion of Tamils may now decline, it must finally be acknowledged that its government’s deportation policy was valuable to Sri Lanka’s counter-insurgency campaign. Sivaram was assassinated for his outspoken ideas about what he called ‘countering counter-insurgency’. Perhaps resistance from activists to UKBA deportations has been a chapter in that story.

Minister denies torture of Tamils deported from Britain

Candle Light Vigil in memory of Tamils killed or tortured in Sri lanka.
A candle light vigil is held in India for Tamil victims of torture VinothChandlar, under a CC License

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.

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