What it means to turn back a boat

They had them dubbed ‘No Fire Zones’. Civilians – Tamils from Sri Lanka’s North – fled to these designated areas on the edge of the conflict zone, where government forces were gearing up to end their war with the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE). These zones were a way to permit the government advance. They were essentially domestic refugee camps where non-combatants could wait out the gunfire and shellings in peace. Mothers and fathers dashed towards shelter, their kids on their backs, craning their heads at the tanks on the horizon. They set down bags filled with their tents, cameras, and photographs by the sandbags and talked. As the sun set, whole towns were huddled together in waiting. They had mostly retired to their tents when they heard the first shell soar into the air. It promptly landed in the middle of the No Fire Zone, tearing apart the lives of those fleeing, incinerating all trace of their existence.

Since mid-December 2017, Sri Lankan press has been reporting that a refugee ship of twenty-nine Tamils was returned by the Australian Government, after being found within Australian territory. The reports state that the ship was found off the coast of Western Australia and intercepted by Border Force, which brought everyone to shore, then shoved them onto a plane straight to Colombo. Immigration staff have refused to comment on these claims since they’re ‘on-water matters’, which almost certainly means that the shadiest possible activities have gone down. This is just another in a long line of boat turnbacks, all of which were carrying a substantial number of Tamil refugees. The incident has received minor comment from the fourth estate internationally. Typically in Australia, when you see articles on the turning back of a refugee boat, you lack some fairly key context, like what the fuck people were running from, or what they face upon their return.

Thankfully, as everyone aboard this last ship was a Tamil Sri Lankan, we do know exactly what they were running from. After all, we have extensive video evidence of not only what forces people to flee from Sri Lanka, but what faces them on their return.

January 2008, President Mahinda Rajapaksa and Defence Secretary Gotabhaya Rajapaksa spent long days in their office determining how to go about the final offensive. UN observers were sent alerts that they may be in the path of fire and that their safety could not be guaranteed. Agents of the Rajapaksas began pressing the organisation to flee the combat zone. The UN, operating apparently on the honour system, pulled out their observers. This gave the President and his men the belief that they would have total darkness in the area. But civilians also carry cameras. Additionally, a handful UN operatives felt compelled to remain and to organise the number of non-Tiger-affiliated Tamil citizenry there, who had now become refugees in their own country.

‘No Fire Zones’ were created just before government forces advanced into North and Northeast Sri Lanka, Tamil Eelam, the area of the proposed Tamil-majority state and effectively the Tamils’ stronghold. The zones were promoted to the 330,000 fleeing the North as places in which they could wait out the violence without fear of falling into it. But within the first night of fire, tanks that during the morning had aimed towards the city now pointed directly into the zones. Alerts starting coming through from the few remaining UN workers that gunfire was causing civilian casualties. Yet the shelling continued, night after night. Limbs were strewn about the ground. Children ran from tents to try to resuscitate parents or elders who lay choking on shrapnel, and they were quickly torn apart by double tap shellings.

Those who didn’t die from their injuries were escorted to a nearby hospital. The hospital was blown up by mortar fire when it reached full occupancy. Over the next hundred days, Tamil hospitals would be shelled sixty-five times, despite government forces being provided their exact coordinates and orders from the UN to cease firing upon them. The bombing of infirmaries, particularly known infirmaries, is a war crime. Current assessments indicate that of the 330,000 civilians who entered the no fire zones, over 70,000 were killed.

Outside of the zones, Tamils who surrendered to the government were taken as POWs, but still executed. This was recorded on video by jovial government soldiers. Women who surrendered were raped or sexually assaulted before their executions – also caught on film by government agents. After 100 days of sieging the cities of Northern Sri Lanka, the Rajapaksa Government announced that the Tamil Tigers had been crushed with an amazing civilian death toll of zero people. The army confiscated all land to the North.

Things didn’t improve when the war was over.

Since the end of the war, the military has not left the North. Draconian anti-terror ordinances meant that anyone who publicly expressed sympathy with the Tamils could be detained as a terror suspect. Tamils are arrested in far greater numbers than the Sinhalese majority, and are frequently tortured and sexually abused when in custody. Many have found themselves homeless following the war, their land stolen and sold off by the Sri Lankan military. The same authorities that keep the Tamils beneath a steel boot sit back and watch whenever Buddhist extremists vandalise Tamil Hindu temples and batter the faithful within. Over two administrations, in a grand total of nine years, an estimated 100,000 have been forcibly disappeared, with one person disappearing every five days. People stuffed into unmarked white vans by the thousands. The official civilian death count from the war remained at zero, even after more and more footage was shared of the massacres.

The Sri Lankan government as it currently stands can only be viewed as an existential threat to the Tamil people. It’s also whose care we place Tamil refugees in when we send back a boat. Most times this goes unmentioned when a ship comes careening through Peter Dutton’s fortress ocean. Though to be fair, if someone comes looking to you for help, it shouldn’t matter where they’ve come from. However, it does become relevant when you start sending back refugees to the people who most want to see them harmed. And it becomes especially relevant if it turns out you’ve been actively working with those same genocidal forces, organising a quid pro quo agreement.

Rajapaksa had a few strong allies ready to bat for him when films and photographs of decapitated civilians and blown-out hospitals were leaked into the world. Pakistan could be counted on to stand up for the island in a pinch, and Sri Lanka was on decent enough terms with India to expect some protection should the UN come at it again, with a spine this time. But this coalition still wasn’t much, especially considering Sri Lanka’s allies were outnumbered two-to-one on the Security Council at the time. In this moment, opportunity presented itself before Rajapaksa.

Then prime minister Tony Abbott worked very closely with Immigration Minister Scott Morrison when setting up ‘Operation Sovereign Borders’. The result of this policy has been to damn refugees on this continent to a painful trip out of this world and a restless one to the next, militarise immigration officials, and dig the foundations for ‘loyalty tests’ and the legal abduction of settled refugees. Built into this policy were a variety of ways to block any detailed information about how the government ‘stopped the boats’. As such, Abbott and Co. did not find time, nor reason, to announce to Australia that they had struck a deal with Rajapaksa over just what to do about the Tamil refugees.

‘We applaud the Sri Lankan Government’s devotion to human rights and their devotion to democratic pluralism,’ Abbott said flatly, after touching down in Sri Lanka for the Commonwealth Heads of Government meeting. Standing beside the soon-to-be-ex-PM was the grinning pair, President Rajapaksa and his brother, the Secretary of Defence. Just days before, the BBC had released the culmination of four years of research: an hour-long report on the human rights nightmare that was the final push of the Sri Lankan Civil War, complete with footage scrounged from the warzone. As a result, even close allies felt compelled to condemn Sri Lanka’s human rights record. That is, except for us.

Pressure began mounting for a UN investigation into the massacres and the white-van disappearances. In the quiet UN hallways of New York, the word genocide began to crop up more and more in relation to the island nation. The footage made the Sri Lankan Government’s story of the events completely implausible. Australian Foreign Affairs Minister Julie Bishop denounced all international action that was being considered against the Rajapaksa Government as needlessly divisive, citing Sri Lanka’s human rights record as evidenced by the ‘zero civilian casualties’ during the 2008-09 assault. Scott Morrison, completely unscheduled and unprovoked, popped up in Sri Lanka to denounce attacks on their human rights record as ‘a form of moral colonialism.’ His entourage made sure to turn away all Tamil politicians or activists during his visit. Time and time again, whenever Sri Lanka faced international pressure or condemnation, key LNP politicians would pop up to insist that Sri Lanka’s record was completely spotless. In 2015, we learned why.

Maithripala Sirisena didn’t expect to beat out Rajapaksa in the presidential election, but then again nor did most of the country. Toppling a nationalist who had ended a civil war that lasted for half of the nation’s modern history? It turns out the only one up to the task was an even more devout nationalist. But the Rajapaksa faction still held some sway with the people, and Sirisena needed to discredit the old president, lest the latter provoke a struggle within Sirisena’s own party. After rummaging through the archives of his predecessor, Sirisena reported his findings to the Sri Lankan press.

The agreement was a simple quid pro quo: should Sri Lanka restrict and prosecute all refugees trying to leave the island, and should they accept any that were towed back without making a scene, then the position of the Australian Government would remain that all human rights abuses would be treated as if they had never occurred. Australia would instead disseminate propaganda endorsing the Sri Lankan Government’s claims and attempt to shoot down any attempt at international action.

Australia’s duties outlined in these documents almost mirror those of the UK during Indonesia’s massacres of 1965-66. Those actions led to a UN People’s Tribunal finding that the country had been complicit in genocide.

At least 1,100 Tamils have been handed over by Australia to those who organised their holocaust. What has happened to them following that is anyone’s guess, though in a land of vanishing people it wouldn’t be irresponsible to take a pessimistic view on their eventual fate. Upon discovery of these documents, the Australian Government held its tongue. However, there is a voice that can never stay silent for long. In 2016, Abbott wrote glowingly about his dooming of the Tamils for frequent Indigenous-genocide deniers Quadrant magazine. Even for Abbott, it’s a nauseating piece, nakedly bragging not just of the deal to overlook genocide but revealing that he’d pulled the same move with a group of West Papuans fleeing their own genocide, an incident that never reached the pages of Australia’s media, digital or otherwise.

Within the last month, the Australian Government has begun another crackdown on asylum seekers, announcing further cuts to the weekly income of those on asylum-seeker visas. Shantaruban, a Tamil man associated with the Tigers who has been waiting in a Victorian detention centre with his family since Julia Gillard was prime minister, was bundled up by security forces on the last Monday of February into a plane, and then into the hands of the Colombo security forces. Despite only having been in Sri Lanka again for three weeks, he has already been held by security forces for periods of nine hours at a time on multiple occasions, despite promises from the government to not touch him, and his family have been tracked by security personnel constantly.

Most recently, a Tamil family in Central Queensland was detained by Border Force after their visas had lapsed by a single day. Despite the lodging of a court challenge the same day, and demands from the 10,000-person town to release these beloved members of their community, the four (who had already been found to have legitimate risk in returning to Sri Lanka) were stuffed into a Colombo-bound plane. At the last second, someone aboard the plane got a hold of the family’s lawyer and told them of the deportation attempt. In response, the Federal Court threatened to move for a special session the next day, prompting the government to back down and remove the husband, wife, child and toddler from their path into the hands of torture. Still, considering how brazen the attempt to circumvent the rule of law by the new Home Office in this way, along with Peter ‘The Last Rhodesian’ Dutton’s unchecked power, one can hardly call the family safe from this point to their court date in May.

These examples are the ultimate extension of the ‘we will decide who comes to this country and the circumstances which they come’ ethos we operate under. Those who are not welcome will be culled at the source to save us the time and effort and potential loss of political capital. It’s now a matter of bipartisan agreement, with boat turnbacks to Sri Lanka occurring under Gillard, Abbott and Turnbull. There’s no reason to assume that this policy will end should the LNP face a leadership spill or the ALP returned to power. Even if a change in leadership were all it took to reverse this flagrant abuse of human rights, it would be too little too late for the 1,100 people we have sent back to Sri Lanka already, the unknown amount we have returned to Indonesia, and the Myanmar Muslims whose ethnic cleansing we are currently refusing to recognise.

A remedy to this criminality would require a massive groundswell of support from within the ALP or LNP base that rejects our draconian refugee policy, a donor base that suddenly rejects our draconian refugee policy, or replacement with a third party that rejects the policy outright. As we are aware, the chances of any of these three solutions occurring in today’s Australia is verging on the edge of impossible. You and I have no immediate way to end Australian collaboration in the genocide of Sri Lankan Tamils. Perhaps this demonstrates a limitation of parliamentary politics to tackle issues of human rights, however the use of the plight of a people that our country has doomed, as a thinking exercise, is repugnant.

The boat turnbacks and chartered planes are just another aspect of our monstrous refugee policy, but they don’t seem to generate much attention considering the absolute inhumanity of it. There is no mourning for the ships, no pictures of the victims to line the walls of a museum whose foundation is yet to be laid, no vigils for the souls disappeared through the actions of Border Force. To let these victims pass into obscurity is to spit on the graves we’ve dug. It gives Australia an angle to deny participation in yet another genocide. When papers or politicians note a boat’s existence only to ignore it a day later: this is why they’re ignoring it. The least we can do is remember who knew what, and who we lost.


Image: presstv / AFP

Bee Spencer

Bee Spencer is a transgender writer interested in environmental issues. She holds a bachelor of science from the University of Melbourne and enjoys hailstorms.

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  1. Hello. I read Overland regularly and came across this article on refugees/turn back boats etc., Thank you for your enlightening me on this topic and for giving me a deeper insight into these subjects. Also, I offer my congratulations on your writing and your no-nonsense style of journalism/analysis.
    All the best with your future.

  2. it was not so much the bbc documentary but the Channel4 broadcast in spring 2014 which caused shit to hit the fan in colombo. plus ca change. whilst the buddhist extremists now frequently target the muslim minority.
    due to a major fk up by C4 my name was on the doc as a contributor. fortunately i have powerful friends in kandy, having been going to sri lanka since 1997.

  3. It makes no sense turning a boat around using tax payer money to house them in awful conditions offshore. We need to process them quickly and humanely and if they are a legitimate refugee, allow them in and help them integrate into our society. Most of them have come from such abhorrent circumstances that they are so keen to work hard in a new life, which helps our economy too. Plus if we stop cutting foreign aid the nations that they are coming from might actually be a bit better off!

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