The Australian Labour Party’s last Foreign Minister Bob Carr, has ridiculed refugee advocates’ “urban mythology” about endemic persecution of Tamils in Sri Lanka, saying the previous government “couldn’t find a single case” of returned asylum-seekers being abused by authorities.
Carr who retired from politics last October, accepted Sri Lanka’s recovery after 35 years of civil war was not “a perfect exercise”, but rejected former Liberal Prime Minister Malcolm Fraser’s likening of the Abbott government’s policy to returning Jews to Nazi Germany. Carr’s comments come as the Abbott government determines the fate of 153 Sri Lankan nationals being held aboard an Australian Customs vessel after their interception at sea. Forty-one asylum-seekers, mostly belonging to Sri Lanka’s Sinhalese majority, have already been returned and face charges of leaving the country illegally. The government agreed in the High Court yesterday not to hand the 153 asylum-seekers over to Sri Lanka without 72 hours’ notice. However The Australian understands the government has no intention of sending the boatload to Sri Lanka, nor are authorities in Colombo preparing to receive them.
Those now on board the ¬Customs boat could be transferred to the Manus Island offshore processing centre in Papua New Guinea, the Nauru centre or repatriated to India.
Refugee advocates argue Tamils should not be returned to Sri Lanka because they fear persecution in the wake of the country’s civil war.
Mr Carr said Sri Lanka was “not doing badly” given its decades-long civil war with the “bloodthirsty” Tamil Tigers, whom he compared with genocidal Cambodian dictator Pol Pot.
“Things I’ve been hearing from the refugee lobby are simply unsustainable,” Mr Carr, a former NSW Labor premier who served as foreign minister to Julia Gillard and Kevin Rudd, told ABC Radio. “The idea that there is entrenched apartheid in the country like old South Africa or the West Bank just cannot be sustained.
“You’ve got 12 per cent of the population of Sri Lanka of Tamil background and they are heavily represented in the leadership of the country. You’ve got Tamil political parties sitting in the parliament,
Tamil judges, Tamil doctors and engineers, a Tamil business leadership.
“There’s a great danger in this that we accept one side in this narrative … It’s not just a Tamil Tigers’ narrative; it’s a narrative about a complex society rebuilding itself after 35 years of vicious violence and not doing badly.”
Tony Abbott declined to comment on The Australian’s report, saying: “I’m just not going to make any comments upon Operation Sovereign Borders activities on the water. I just want to stress to you and your listeners that we will comply with our legal obligations and we will certainly comply with our obligations to promote safety at sea.”
Mr Carr said the Labor government returned a boatload of Sri Lankan asylum-seekers about August 2012, none of whom were treated inhumanely. Rather, they were interviewed and then released.
“There were only four issues raised with returnees by the High Commission, their position was carefully investigated and there was no mistreatment confirmed,” Mr Carr said.
“There was extraordinary urban mythology promoted about their treatment.
I had it put to me in a meeting with NGOs at DFAT once that there were hundreds of returnees from Australia held in detention; now that was pure myth.
“It’s in the interests of Sri Lanka to send a message to the world — for goodness sake, the country’s under constant close observance by the Human Rights Commission in Geneva — that in cases like this it adheres to its own law.”