Today’s protest, moved online due to COVID restrictions, was organised by the Tamil Refugee Council against the Australian government’s treatment of asylum seekers and amidst renewed public concern for the Biloela family.
It follows continued criticism of the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade’s (DFAT) reliance on a 2019 report that the Council says is inaccurate and damaging. The report remains a key document used to decide the refugee status of any Tamils seeking asylum in Australia.
The rally, based in Sydney and featuring four speakers, highlighted the experiences of the Tamil minority in Sri Lanka and their lack of safety, contrary to the DFAT report that maintains that Tamils in Sri Lanka face “a low risk of torture overall.”
This view, adopted by the Federal Government, is at odds with that held by the UN, the United States government and many European countries, all of whom, to varying degrees, accept that ethnic persecution is a high risk to Tamils in their homeland.
Ben Hillier, a member of the Tamil Refugee Council and author of Losing Santhia: Life and Loss in the Struggle for Tamil Eelam, spoke of the history of the Sinhalese majority and its persecution of Tamils.
Hiller said that the technical truth of the term civil war, often favoured in public discourse on the topic, obfuscates the direction of persecution within the country. “Independence wasn’t the result of a massive anti-colonial uprising,” as had happened in other countries. Instead, Sri Lankan independence was a negotiated settlement, with the country named a dominion of the British Empire. This handover to Sri Lankan elites, Hiller said, maintained the power dynamics that were remnants of the colonial era and enforced ethnic governance.
Journalist Bashana Abeywardane, who coordinates a group advocating for the rights of journalists in Sri Lanka, spoke to the rally from Germany, where he lives in exile. He said that recently “scores of Tamils have been arrested under the Anti-Terrorism Act” and that “Tamils still face persecution for insignificant social media posts.”
Kathirini Ratnakumar, a student and Tamil refugee living in Sydney, said the Sri Lankan government’s claims about its human-rights record lack any credibility.