sri lankan politics

Contrary to claims, asylum seekers from Australia returning to Sri Lanka may not have a safe passage

The Sri Lankan government has made little progress in providing accountability for wartime abuses.

In his recent visit to Australia, the Prime Minister of Sri Lanka, Ranil Wickremesinghe, urged Sri Lankan asylum seekers to “come back, all is forgiven”. He went on to say: “They can come back to Sri Lanka and we will help them.”

Immigration department figures show as of January, there were 86 Sri Lankan adult men in detention facilities in Australia. In community detention, there are 24 adult men, 19 women, 28 boys and 15 girls from Sri Lanka.

Every one of these people are still undergoing the refugee determination process. This means there is still a risk they may be sent back to their home country if found not to be “genuine refugees”.

Last year, the Australian government controversially sent back a boat carrying 12 Sri Lankan asylum seekers. Wickremesinghe’s reassurances echo those of Tony Abbott some years ago.

The former Abbott government consistently deemed it safe to return Sri Lankan nationals to the country, saying the civil war had ended and the country was “at peace”.

In 2014, one boat of 153 Tamil asylum seekers were intercepted at sea by Australian customs vessels and returned to Sri Lanka. Another boat carrying 28 Sri Lankan nationals were handed over to Sri Lankan authorities.

The Australian government is aware that returning people to a country where they face harm is in breach of international law and the UN Refugee Convention, to which it is a signatory.

There is mounting evidence suggesting that, during Abbott’s tenure, asylum seekers returning to Sri Lanka faced torture. There is little reason to believe much has changed since.

What’s happening in Sri Lanka?

In January 2015, Sri Lanka had a leadership change. This was generally viewed as positive for the country: a new beginning in a post-armed conflict setting.

However, things quickly turned when the new leadership showed little signs of making meaningful improvements to its transitional justice agenda. This included changing the country’s laws regarding returned asylum seekers or even considering this a priority.

When asked whether it was safe for asylum seekers to return to Sri Lanka, Wickremesinghe responded: “We just started a missing persons office. It is quite safe for them to come back.”

This office was established last year to investigate the disappearance of people – mainly Tamils – during the decades of fighting between the Sri Lankan government and Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam that ended in 2009.

The outcomes of the Office of Missing Persons are questionable. There have been 20,000 cases of missing persons recorded, while not a single person listed as missing has been traced since the new government took office. Families of those missing continue to hold demonstrations to seek answers about their loved ones.

Emerging evidence challenges reconciliation efforts with the Tamil minority community and strongly argues against returning asylum seekers to Sri Lanka – in striking contrast to the views of the Australian government.

Human rights abuses

In December, an official UN report on Sri Lanka showed evidence of male and female torture. This was from various periods during and after the conflict, as well as recent cases in 2015 and 2016. Medical examinations of survivors confirmed physical injuries that were consistent with their interviews.

The report highlights evidence of sexual and gender-based violence and extensive surveillance for anyone deemed to have had any links to the LTTE. It also identified the continued presence of “white van abductions”. This was a method by which gangs linked to the Sri Lankan government military abducted and silenced people suspected of opposing the dominant views of government.

The majority of white van abductions occur in Tamil-occupied areas of the north and east of Sri Lanka.

The issue of torture and other cruel, inhumane or degrading treatment of punishment is part of the legacy of the country’s armed conflict. It is one reason why Sri Lankan citizens continue to live without minimal guarantees of protection against the power of the state, in particular security forces.

They can’t go back

In 2014, the CEO of the Refugee Council of Australia, Paul Power, raised concerns about returning asylum seekers to Sri Lanka. He said the country had a “long history of political violence on a scale unimaginable to Australians”.

It is not surprising Sri Lankans fleeing persecution continue to come to Australia seven years after the war. Approximately 250,000 Tamil people fled during the final stages of the conflict in 2009.

The United Nations says around 40,000 mainly Tamil civilians were killed in this period. Those who survived became displaced in refugee camps under deteriorating humanitarian conditions. Many others risked their lives in boats, spending weeks in the ocean in search for a better life in countries such as Australia.

In its 2015 annual report, Human Rights Watch said:

The Sri Lankan government has made little progress in providing accountability for wartime abuses.

The report also identified that government obligations to address the human rights concerns of the Tamil minority population remain largely unfulfilled. And those who have returned faced indefinite imprisonment. Under these circumstances, the plight of asylum seekers returning to Sri Lanka appears to be anything but safe.

The Australian and Sri Lankan governments uphold that many asylum seekers from Sri Lanka are not fleeing persecution, and instead arrive as economic migrants.

This political rhetoric continues putting asylum seekers at risk and allows Australians to prioritise ignorance over confrontation.

Niro Kandasamy, PhD Candidate, School of Historical and Philosophical Studies, University of Melbourne.

This article first appeared on The Conversation.`

We welcome your comments at letters@scroll.in.
Sponsored Content BY 

How sustainable farming practices can secure India's food for the future

India is home to 15% of the world’s undernourished population.

Food security is a pressing problem in India and in the world. According to the Food and Agriculture Organization of the UN (FAO), it is estimated that over 190 million people go hungry every day in the country.

Evidence for India’s food challenge can be found in the fact that the yield per hectare of rice, one of India’s principal crops, is 2177 kgs per hectare, lagging behind countries such as China and Brazil that have yield rates of 4263 kgs/hectare and 3265 kgs/hectare respectively. The cereal yield per hectare in the country is also 2,981 kgs per hectare, lagging far behind countries such as China, Japan and the US.

The slow growth of agricultural production in India can be attributed to an inefficient rural transport system, lack of awareness about the treatment of crops, limited access to modern farming technology and the shrinking agricultural land due to urbanization. Add to that, an irregular monsoon and the fact that 63% of agricultural land is dependent on rainfall further increase the difficulties we face.

Despite these odds, there is huge potential for India to increase its agricultural productivity to meet the food requirements of its growing population.

The good news is that experience in India and other countries shows that the adoption of sustainable farming practices can increase both productivity and reduce ecological harm.

Sustainable agriculture techniques enable higher resource efficiency – they help produce greater agricultural output while using lesser land, water and energy, ensuring profitability for the farmer. These essentially include methods that, among other things, protect and enhance the crops and the soil, improve water absorption and use efficient seed treatments. While Indian farmers have traditionally followed these principles, new technology now makes them more effective.

For example, for soil enhancement, certified biodegradable mulch films are now available. A mulch film is a layer of protective material applied to soil to conserve moisture and fertility. Most mulch films used in agriculture today are made of polyethylene (PE), which has the unwanted overhead of disposal. It is a labour intensive and time-consuming process to remove the PE mulch film after usage. If not done, it affects soil quality and hence, crop yield. An independently certified biodegradable mulch film, on the other hand, is directly absorbed by the microorganisms in the soil. It conserves the soil properties, eliminates soil contamination, and saves the labor cost that comes with PE mulch films.

The other perpetual challenge for India’s farms is the availability of water. Many food crops like rice and sugarcane have a high-water requirement. In a country like India, where majority of the agricultural land is rain-fed, low rainfall years can wreak havoc for crops and cause a slew of other problems - a surge in crop prices and a reduction in access to essential food items. Again, Indian farmers have long experience in water conservation that can now be enhanced through technology.

Seeds can now be treated with enhancements that help them improve their root systems. This leads to more efficient water absorption.

In addition to soil and water management, the third big factor, better seed treatment, can also significantly improve crop health and boost productivity. These solutions include application of fungicides and insecticides that protect the seed from unwanted fungi and parasites that can damage crops or hinder growth, and increase productivity.

While sustainable agriculture through soil, water and seed management can increase crop yields, an efficient warehousing and distribution system is also necessary to ensure that the output reaches the consumers. According to a study by CIPHET, Indian government’s harvest-research body, up to 67 million tons of food get wasted every year — a quantity equivalent to that consumed by the entire state of Bihar in a year. Perishables, such as fruits and vegetables, end up rotting in store houses or during transportation due to pests, erratic weather and the lack of modern storage facilities. In fact, simply bringing down food wastage and increasing the efficiency in distribution alone can significantly help improve food security. Innovations such as special tarpaulins, that keep perishables cool during transit, and more efficient insulation solutions can reduce rotting and reduce energy usage in cold storage.

Thus, all three aspects — production, storage, and distribution — need to be optimized if India is to feed its ever-growing population.

One company working to drive increased sustainability down the entire agriculture value chain is BASF. For example, the company offers cutting edge seed treatments that protect crops from disease and provide plant health benefits such as enhanced vitality and better tolerance for stress and cold. In addition, BASF has developed a biodegradable mulch film from its ecovio® bioplastic that is certified compostable – meaning farmers can reap the benefits of better soil without risk of contamination or increased labor costs. These and more of the company’s innovations are helping farmers in India achieve higher and more sustainable yields.

Of course, products are only one part of the solution. The company also recognizes the importance of training farmers in sustainable farming practices and in the safe use of its products. To this end, BASF engaged in a widespread farmer outreach program called Samruddhi from 2007 to 2014. Their ‘Suraksha Hamesha’ (safety always) program reached over 23,000 farmers and 4,000 spray men across India in 2016 alone. In addition to training, the company also offers a ‘Sanrakshan® Kit’ to farmers that includes personal protection tools and equipment. All these efforts serve to spread awareness about the sustainable and responsible use of crop protection products – ensuring that farmers stay safe while producing good quality food.

Interested in learning more about BASF’s work in sustainable agriculture? See here.

This article was produced by the Scroll marketing team on behalf of BASF and not by the Scroll editorial team.