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Home > Struggle for Tamil Eelam > Tamil Refugees & Asylum Seekers Swiss Federation of Tamil Associations Appeal , 1994  

Reconsider repatriation of Tamil asylum seekers

Swiss Federation of Tamil Associations
Appeal to Swiss Authorities, 1994


Dear Sirs,

1.The Swiss Federation of Tamil Associations appeals to the Swiss authorities to reconsider their decision to forcibly repatriate Tamil asylum seekers to Sri Lanka.

2.We understand that the governments of Switzerland and Sri Lanka signed an agreement on 12 January 1994 in Colombo to forcibly repatriate Tamil asylum seekers in Switzerland and that in the first instance, upto 3000 asylum seekers who arrived after 1992 and whose asylum claims had been rejected were to be targeted. It is also reported by the British Refugee Council publication, the Sri Lanka Monitor, that another 16,000 Tamil refugee cases, still undetermined, have been reopened and most are likely to be refused.

3.May we respectfully point out that the proposed forcible repatriation of Tamil asylum seekers offends the fundamental provisions of the UN Convention on Refugees and that Tamils sent back in this way to Sri Lanka will face detention, ill treament, repeated arrests, torture and even death at the hands of the Sri Lanka authorities.

4.You are, no doubt, aware that several non governmental organisations reaffirmed their opposition to returning rejected asylum seekers to Sri Lanka at a special UNHCR meeting in Geneva on 29 September 1993.

5.Again on 6 October 1993, an European Parliamentary delegation which visited Sri Lanka told the Colombo Press that ‘‘the current situation in Sri Lanka was not conducive for Western governments to return asylum seekers’’

6.These views give the lie direct to the claims sometimes made on behalf of the Sri Lanka government that ‘‘ the widespread human rights abuses of the last few years have sharply declined and that the Sri Lanka Government have taken measures to protect the human rights of all its citizens as a result of pressure from bodies such as Amnesty International and donor governments," and further that "some 300,000 Tamils are resident in the Colombo area and they together with other Tamils who live outside the conflict zone of the north and east, are generally able to live peacefully without harassment from the majority Sinhalese population."

7.The fact is that the human rights performance of the Sri Lanka authorities, far from improving, has deteriorated during the past several months. May we bring to your attention that Amnesty International itself, in a Report published in February this year (AI Index: ASA 37/10/94) had this to say about the current situation in the island:

‘‘Thousands of Tamils are being arrested every month in Colombo, most without any valid reason. The government says there were 15,000 arrests in Colombo under emergency legislation between 1 June and 31 December 1993.. The true number of arrests may be higher if people were arrested without the necessary paper work being completed... The small number of cases in which there appears to be any evidence of wrong doing is high lighted by the fact that out of a total of 15,711 arrests in only 17 (0.11%) cases have charges been laid... In many cases families who have not been notified of the arrest desperately search for their missing relative, fearing they have ‘disappeared’.

The army and armed groups working with the government have abducted some people and held them in secret places of detention for upto two and a half months, where they have been tortured before being dumped on the side of the road or transferred to police custody.

The indiscriminate round ups of people solely because of their ethnic origin and reports of their treatment in custody is making members of the Tamil community fearful that they are not safe to walk the streets of Colombo.

The way in which people are being arrested and detained is reminiscent of the manner in which thousands of people were detained in the south between 1988 and 1990... The way in which people have been recently abducted in Colombo by army in civilian dress, blindfolded with their own shirts and taken away in unmarked vehicles to secret locations where they have been tortured is a particularly chilling echo of the past.’’

8.As to what happens when a Tamil is arrested and detained by the Sri Lanka authorities, the Amnesty Report contains several illustrations. We set out hereunder one such instance:

‘‘Arulappu Jude Arulrajah was arrested on 2 October 1993 at about 1.30 a.m. from his lodge at Bambalapitiya, Colombo by armed men in civilian dress. Amnesty found that during most of the two months he was held at this first place of detention, Arulrajah was blindfolded, with his hands and feet chained and he was kept in a darkened room usually naked. He was regularly beaten and on one occasion he was hung from a wooden pole suspended between two tables and his genitals cut, possibly with a hacksaw... Arulrajah was never told the reason for the detention nor was he brought before a court or accused of having committed any crime.’’

9.Again though the Government of Sri Lanka has on occasion publicly accepted the responsibility for investigating violations of human rights by the security forces and prosecuting offenders, the actions of the Sri Lanka government have been at variance with its public posturing. Amnesty International has commented in its February 1994 Report (ASA 37/09/94):

‘‘..impunity remained a major obstacle to the long term improvement of human rights. Little progress was made in the prosecution of security forces personnel allegedly responsible for committing human rights violations during previous years...

A former senior police officer who had left Sri Lanka in 1992 returned in June 1993. He had been wanted for questioning in connection with the death from torture of a (Sinhala) lawyer, Wijedasa Liyanaratchi in 1988 and had been summoned to appear in court in April 1992. After his return, however, he was not required to attend the court; instead he was given a senior position in government service.."

10.May we also add that, the US State Department’s 1993 Report containing a global compendium of rights abuses released during the first week of February this year also noted that despite credible evidence implicating security forces members in human rights abuses, ‘‘no member of the security force was tried or convicted for human rights violations in 1993, thus encouraging these forces to believe that they are immune from prosecution.’’

11.The continued failure of the Sri Lanka government to take action against security forces in respect of human right abuses has led to the well founded fear amongst Tamil asylum seekers that the security forces can do whatever they want and there is nobody to question them. He has legitimate grounds to fear that in Colombo every Tamil is looked upon with suspicion and that being a Tamil is a sufficient reason for the security forces to take away a person from the streets or his dwelling at any hour of the day.

12.Here, may we point out that a Tamil returning from abroad has a well founded fear that he will be specially at risk. He will be suspected of having helped the armed resistance movement by funding it from abroad; he will be suspected of having information about the identities of members of the armed resistance and its sympathisers, both in Colombo and in London; and he will be interrogated, tortured, detained indefinitely and may even ‘disappear’.

13.It has also been sometimes put about recently that ‘‘the Sri Lankan government has cooperated with UN bodies dealing with human rights and has committed itself to a comprehensive programme of human rights work at the March 1993 Session of the UN Commission on Human Rights" and that this has created a climate for the return of Tamil asylum seekers. But, again, may we say, respectfully, that the facts are otherwise. In its February 1994 Report (ASA 37/09/94), Amnesty International has pointed out:

" Many of the specific undertakings made (by Sri Lanka) to the international community for the protection of human rights have yet to be implemented... Although the government undertook to remove from Emergency Regulations any regulation which has no bearing on public security concerns, it has since promulgated new regulations with no apparent connection to public security... The government has said that changes to the Emergency Regulations in June 1993 were made taking into consideration the recommendations of the Centre of Human Rights at the University of Colombo and other human rights organisations. However, the regulations have not yet been completely revised and many of the recommendations for revision of arrest and detention procedures made to the government by international and local human rights organisations have not been incorporated..’’

13.We would also respectfully point out for your consideration that any Tamil has legitimate grounds to fear that the Sri Lanka government is conducting a planned attack on the Tamil people. The Sri Lanka airforce attacks temples, churches, hospitals and homes in the Jaffna peninsula killing several innocent people and destroying buildings. (Please see annexure ‘‘A’’) Recently, after the attack on St.James Church in the Jaffna Peninsula, on 13 November 1993 Bishop D.J.Ambalavanar, Bishop Thomas Saundranayagam and Nallai Thiru Sampandar Atheenam declared in a joint statement:

‘‘All these buildings used exclusively for sacred worship and public services are such large and prominent structures that no Air Force can pretend innocence about the targets being struck....These events are not just sporadic occurrences but have been repeated so often in the past that we cannot but conclude it is part of state policy against the Tamils. A close statistical study of the air raids carried out by the Sri Lankan airforce in the North will show that the victims of the raids have almost always been innocent helpless civilians... When this is the case how could any one avoid concluding that this is organised State terrorism.?"

15.By aerial bombardment, shelling from land, and the economic blockade the government is apparent intent on flushing out the Tamil people from the North who then have to cross the Killali lagoon in small boats. Even this passage to the mainland is not safe. They are attacked in the waters by Navy gun boats and Sri Lanka helicopters.The British Refugee Council Sri Lanka Monitor commented in its September 1993 issue:

‘‘... Sri Lankan military authorities say the (Killali ferry) crossing is illegal and travellers will be shot on sight. Over 200 have been killed in air and navy attacks this year. In one attack in January which killed 50, a man feigned death while sailors boarded boats mutilating dead bodies to steal jewellery. Another 17 people drowned in August when their boat capsized during shelling. Defence sources in Colombo usually describe the attacks as clashes with the LTTE. As the sun went down on Killali on 6 September, a lone helicopter circled lazily watching hundreds of people waiting for cover of darkness for the night run to Nallur. Over 80 boats set out flanked as usual by armed Sea Tigers in high speed launches. A survivor told Colombo Tamil newspaper Virakesari what happened next. ‘About half-way we heard two helicopters and saw searchlights probing the darkness. Suddenly there was firing from every direction. People were screaming. I was sure we would sink. The driver was killed and five people wounded. When we reached Nallur at midnight another aircraft attacked us killing one and injuring four’. Only 25 boats reached Nallur that night and seven people were killed and 20 wounded.

Sri Lankan Presidential Adviser Bradman Weerakoon in Geneva recently for an International Conference on the Protection of War Victims eloquently insisted that governments must take responsibility for the actions of their agents and deny them immunity. He said nothing however about Killali.’’

16.After the latest attack on Tamil civilians at Killai on Saturday, 27 February the BBC (British Broadcasting Corporation) reported:

‘‘The new head of Sri Lanka’s airforce, Oliver Ranasinghe, said this month that his planes would only attack ‘correct’ targets. Despite his statement, this (latest) incident is unlikely to embarrass the security forces. Over the past two years, they have yet to acknowledge or accept any responsibility for the numerous attacks on the lagoon, which have claimed the lives of some two hundred (Tamil) civilians.’’

17.Amnesty International in its Report in February 1994 concluded:

‘‘In the north scores of civilians were reportedly killed during the year by the security forces, some apparently victims of extra judicial executions, as they attempted to cross the Kilalli lagoon from the Jaffna peninsula to the mainland... In some cases, navy personnel reportedly boarded boats and deliberately killed civilian passengers who offered no resistance. Civilians were also reportedly targeted in reprisal bombing raids on Jaffna.’’

18.In addition the President of Sri Lanka has openly said that the Sinhalese people are the majority in the country and therefore they have the right to rule and will rule. He has called for the unity of the Sinhalese people so that they can always rule. Such remarks show that there is nothing multi ethnic, plural or democratic about the society over which he seeks to establish Sinhala rule and that the President’s statements will encourage the Sri Lanka security forces to continue their human rights abuses. Sri Lanka’s President has gone on record as saying:

‘‘Our children should be able to claim that this country is the Sinhalese land (Sinhala Deshaya). There are no races according to Buddhism, but every country has a majority race. However much I try I can’t become the Prime Minister of England. Neither can I be the leader of Japan, India or even Tamil Nadu. They have their majority races. .. The majority community in this country are Sinhalese. Therefore the Sinhalese should govern the country. They governed the country in the past and will do so in the future.’’ (Reported in the Sinhala owned Sri Lanka Island, 3 February 1994)

19.At the sametime, the Sri Lanka government continues to reject offers of mediation by the international community. In August 1993, it rejected the offer made by 4 Nobel Laureates. Early in March this year, it rejected a Canadian initiative saying that the North-East problem was ‘an internal matter’ and that ‘there was no useful role that foreign mediators such as the Canadians could play in this matter’. It has also failed to take up an offer by the UK government to facilitate talks between the parties to the conflict.

20.We submit to you that it would be a grave human tragedy if Tamils who fled from Sinhala racist attacks in the island of Sri Lanka and who sought refuge here in Switzerland should now be returned to the island to face detention,ill treatment, torture and possible death.In the name of all that is just and all that is compassionate, we ask the Swiss authorities to reconsider their decision to forcibly repatriate Tamil asylum seekers.

21.Here may we say that we are mindful that countries in Europe who have had to shelter Tamils have had to bear the cost of the oppressive actions of the racist Sri Lanka government. But at the same time, it is this very same Sri Lanka government which is often propped up by some European governments with aid and arms. This foreign aid to Sri Lanka not only spills Tamil blood in Sri Lanka but also brings Tamil asylum seekers to Europe. Recently, Sri Lanka President D.B. Wijetunga openly spelt out the significance of foreign aid to the war effort. He said:

‘‘The war in the North-East costs the government a staggering Rs.20,000 million a year... Ofcourse, foreign assistance has enabled us to continue development and welfare schemes unabated. We maintain close links with a vast number of countries. The Sri Lanka Aid Group meets annually in Paris. We receive grants and soft loans.’’

22.We urge that the only effective way, the only humane way of stopping and reversing the flow of Tamil asylum seekers is to help remove the underlying causes for the conflict in the island and the influx of Tamil asylum seekers in Europe.We submit that there is an urgent need to address the causes of the conflict and not simply try to suppress its symptoms.

23.Here may we respectfully commend to you the views expressed by 15 Non Governmental Organisations, including International Organisation for the Elimination of all Forms of Racial Discrimination, International Educational Development, Centre Europe Ties Monde, World Christian Community, Pax Christie International, and the World Confederation of Labour declared on 8 February 1993, at the 49th Sessions of the UN Commission on Human Rights in Geneva:

‘‘We are of the view that any meaningful attempt to resolve the conflict should address its underlying causes and to recognise that the armed struggle of the Tamil people for self determination, arose as a response to decades of an ever widening and deepening oppression by a permanent Sinhala majority, within the confines of an unitary Sri Lankan state.

It was an oppression which included the disenfranchisement of the plantation Tamils, systematic state aided Sinhala colonisation of the Tamil homeland, the enactment of the Sinhala Only law, discriminatory employment policies, inequitable allocation of resources to Tamil areas, exclusion of eligible Tamil students from Universities and higher education, and a refusal to share power within the frame of a federal constitution. It was an oppression by an alien Sinhala majority which consolidated the growth of the national consciousness of the Tamil people.

During the past several years the Sinhala dominated Sri Lankan government has attempted to put down the armed resistance of the Tamil people and has sought to conquer and control the Tamil homeland. The record shows that in this attempt, Sri Lanka’s armed forces and para military units have committed increasingly widespread violations of the rules of humanitarian law.

In the East whole villages of Tamils have been attacked by the Army and by the so called Home Guards. Many Tamil residents in these villages were killed. Others have been tortured. Those Tamils who were detained by the Sri Lankan authorities have had little or no hope of coming out alive. The attacks on the Tamil homeland have been coupled with the declared opposition of the Sri Lankan Government to the merger of the North and East of the island into a single administrative and political unit.

However, despite the sustained attacks of Sinhala dominated governments over a period of several decades, the territorial integrity of the Tamil homeland in the North and East of the island has remained. The Tamil population in the North and East, who have lived for many centuries within relatively well defined geographical boundaries, share an ancient heritage, a vibrant culture, and a living language which traces its origins to more than 2500 years ago.

A social group, which shares objective elements such as a common language and which has acquired a subjective consciousness of togetherness, by its life within a relatively well defined territory, and its struggle against alien domination, clearly constitutes a ‘people’ with the right to self determination.

Today, there is an urgent need for the international community to recognise that the Tamil population in the North and East of the island of Sri Lanka are such a ‘people’ with the right to freely choose their political status. It is our view that such recognition will prepare the ground for the resolution of a conflict which has taken such a heavy toll in human lives and suffering during the past several years.’’

24.These views were reinforced by the Joint Statement made by 17 Non Governmental Organisations including the World Council of Churches, International Movement against all Forms of Discrimination and Racism, Action des Christians Pour L’Abolition de la Torture, International Council of Women, American Association of Jurists, Centre Europe-Tiers Monde, Pax Romana and World Christian Live Community on 4 February 1994 under agenda item on ‘The right of peoples to self determination and its application to peoples under colonial or alien domination or foreign occupation’ at the recently concluded 50th Sessions of the UN Human Rights Commission in Geneva:

‘‘In March 1987, the Commission in a Resolution on Sri Lanka called upon all parties to the armed conflict in the island to respect fully the universally accepted rules of humanitarian law.

Six years later in February 1993, at the 49th Sessions of the Commission, 15 non governmental organisations in a joint statement under agenda item 9 declared that there was an ‘urgent need for the international community to recognise that the Tamil population of the North and East of the island were a people with the right to freely choose their political status’ and further that such‘ recognition would prepare the ground for the resolution of a conflict which had taken such a heavy toll in human lives and suffering during the past several years.’

However, today, an year later, the economic blockade imposed on the Tamil homeland continues and Tamil civilians continue to be subject to indiscriminate aerial and artillery bombardment by the Sri Lanka armed forces.

The attacks on the Tamil homeland have been coupled with the declared opposition of the Sri Lankan Government to the merger of the North and East of the island into a single administrative and political unit.

After more than two years of deliberations, the Parliamentary Select Committee mechanism has failed to resolve the conflict and in August 1993, Sri Lanka rejected a peace initiative submitted by four Nobel Laureates.

Furthermore, the President of Sri Lanka has declared in recent months, on more than one occasion, that there is no ‘ethnic problem’ in the island, but that there is only a ‘terrorist problem’.

It is our view that the peaceful and just resolution of the conflict in the island will not be furthered by a blanket categorisation of the armed resistance of the Tamil people which arose in response to decades of oppressive alien Sinhala rule as ‘terrorism’. It is also our view that there is a need to recognise that the deep divisions between the Sri Lanka government and the Tamil people cannot be resolved by the use of force against Tamil resistance...

The 1879 minute of Sir Hugh Cleghorn, the British Colonial Secretary makes it abundantly clear that: "Two different nations, from a very ancient period, have divided between them the possession of the Island: the Sinhalese inhabiting the interior in its Southern and western parts from the river Wallouwe to Chilaw, and the Malabars (Tamils) who possess the Northern and Eastern Districts. These two nations differ entirely in their religion, language and manners."

Before the advent of the British in 1833, separate kingdoms existed for the Tamil areas and for the Sinhala areas in the island. The Tamil people and the Sinhala people were brought within the confines of one state for the first time by the British in 1833. After the departure of the British in 1948, an alien Sinhala people speaking a language different to that of the Tamils and claiming a separate and distinct heritage has persistently denied the rights and fundamental freedoms of the Tamil people...

It is... our view that the Secretary General should consider invoking his good offices with the aim of contributing to the establishment of peace in the island of Sri Lanka through respect for the existence of the Tamil homeland in the NorthEast of the island of Sri Lanka and recognition for the right of the Tamil people to freely determine their political status.’’

25.May we persuade you that the views expressed by these responsible non governmental organisations that ‘the armed struggle of the Tamil people for self determination, arose as a response to decades of an ever widening and deepening oppression by a permanent Sinhala majority, within the confines of an unitary Sri Lankan state’ is right; and that it would be wrong to categorise the Tamil struggle for self determination as a ‘campaign of violence in pursuit of their aim of separation’ and on that basis justify the continuing attacks launched by the Sri Lanka government on the Tamil people as some sort of ‘defence’ of the territorial integrity of the Sinhala Buddhist dominated Sri Lanka state.

26.May we respectfully say that instead of sending back Tamil asylum seekers to face detention, torture and death in Sri Lanka, the Swiss authorities and others with a liberal conscience should use their not inconsiderable influence and power, to persuade the Sri Lanka government to address the underlying causes of the conflict and recognise the right of the Tamil people to live in their own home land, free from the oppressive rule of a Sinhala dominated Sri Lanka government.

27.We believe that any steps that the Swiss authorities may be moved to take in this direction will help to persuade the Sri Lanka government to enter into direct talks with the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam and seek a political solution to a conflict which, one the one hand, has taken an increasingly heavy toll in human lives and suffering within the island, and which, on the other hand, has resulted in an influx of Tamil asylum seekers in Europe.

28.It is legitimisation and negotiation that will provide the pathways to a just peace in the island of Sri Lanka - and it is a just peace that will create the climate for the return of Tamil asylum seekers to their homeland. Because unsurprisingly, Tamils, (like any other people) would go home if they could.

Yours faithfully,

Swiss Federation of Tamil Associations

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