Australia returns asylum seekers to Sri Lanka

Perilous journey: Asylum seekers flee their countries in fear of their lives © PA

In breach of international law, Australia has acted to return asylum seekers to Sri Lanka, despite the fact that many may face persecution there. Can refusing them refuge be justified?

For many, Australia conjures up idyllic images of sun, sea and sand, barbeques on the beach and a relaxed, ‘no worries’ attitude. The country attracts thousands of tourists every year who are welcomed with open arms. But not everyone is welcome, nor do they all receive a ‘fair go’. Australian politics has long been fraught with debate on the topic of the vulnerable men, women and children who make perilous journeys across rough seas in search of a safe haven.

Asylum seekers, mainly from Afghanistan, Sri Lanka, Iraq and Iran, travel to Australia on boats from Indonesia. The number of boats making the crossing rose sharply at the beginning of 2013, and scores of people have died making the journey.

It is a toxic and divisive issue, and one that is rarely out of the Australian newspapers. But on Monday it made international headlines. Australia confirmed that it had returned 41 Sri Lankan asylum seekers to the Sri Lankan navy at sea, in defiance of international law.

Politicians and rights campaigners say the asylum seekers, who include Tamils, could face persecution and torture back home. Another boat containing 153 asylum seekers was also intercepted at sea, but an injunction granted by Australia’a High Court yesterday prevented the government from sending them back, at least for the time being.

This is the first time that the government has confirmed it has intercepted people at sea, screened them on boats, and then returned them to their country of origin. As a signatory to the United Nations Convention on Refugees, Australia is legally obliged to grant anyone fleeing persecution the right to enter its country. This week it has been accused of breaching its international obligations.

Australia’s prime minister Tony Abbott has long promised to ‘get tough’ on asylum seekers. His campaign to ‘stop the boats’ proved widely popular in last year’s elections. But the many lives lost at sea and revelations about appalling conditions at detention camps both in Australia and offshore have prompted renewed debate and much soul-searching among Australians.

No room at the inn?

The Australia government argues that its policy saves lives, by returning illegal boats back to their place of origin before they come to grief at sea. Besides, Australia has a duty to provide for and look after its own citizens; it does not have a responsibility to look after those from other countries.

Others say that the hard line attitudes to refugees are generated by scaremongering in the papers. In reality, Australia has the capacity to accept more outsiders than it currently does. Turning away those who have endured terrible hardship and persecution is an affront to human decency.

You Decide

  1. Is the Australian government justified in returning the asylum seekers?
  2. How easy or difficult should it be for people to claim asylum? What should the criteria be and how would you test it?


  1. Research another example of where this is happening in the world. Give reasons for why people are claiming refuge.
  2. Pretend you have just arrived to a new country after being forced to leave your own. Write a short diary extract describing your journey, your hopes and your fears.

Some People Say...

“Governments are not responsible for the citizens of other countries.”

What do you think?

Q & A

Australia is a long way away – why should I be concerned?
The number of people forced to flee their homes due to war, famine or natural disasters across the world has exceeded 50 million for the first time since the second world war, and it is an issue that we should all be aware of. Most of the world’s refugees live in developing countries, but there have been calls for developed countries to do more to accept and protect people in need of refuge.
Why are people forced to leave their country?
There are many reasons, such as war, climate change, population growth, urbanisation, food insecurity and water scarcity. The dramatic rise in global refugee figures this year has been caused by the conflict in Syria. By the end of 2013, 2.5 million Syrians had fled across the country’s borders.

Word Watch

Fair go
Australians have long defined their country as ‘the land of the fair go’, where everyone is given a reasonable chance to succeed.
Asylum seekers
A person who has applied for asylum based on a well-founded fear of persecution. A refugee is an asylum seeker whose application is successful.
The Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam – a group of armed Tamil separatists who want to create an independent state in the north and east of Sri Lanka for Tamil people. Widespread human-rights violations at the hands of the Sri Lankan military have resulted in numerous Tamil refugees fleeing the country.
Detention camps
Australia holds more than 4,000 boat people in camps on Papua New Guinea and Nauru. Some are also held on Christmas Island, an Australian territory in the Indian Ocean where asylum-seeker boats often make first landfall. In 2010, around 50 asylum seekers died off its coast when their boat crashed into rocks.
In 2010-11, 4828 onshore applicants were granted refugee status in Australia. This was 0.6% of the global total of asylum seekers.

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