OFFICIALS in Sri Lanka are urging Australia to ban the militant group the Tamil Tigers and strike a clear distinction between genuine refugees and economic opportunists. As Foreign Minister Stephen Smith flew to Singapore following talks with Sri Lankan President Mahinda Rajapaksa and his Foreign Minister, Rohitha Bogollagama, aimed at stopping the flow of boats, officials in Colombo told The Australian Sri Lankan people fleeing their country did not need protection.

Yesterday, Mr Smith announced Australia would provide $11 million in funding to Sri Lanka. Most of the money, $6m, will fund de-mining and rehabilitation in the nation’s north after decades of violent conflict, while the rest will go towards housing, food and resettlement services. The two countries also signed a memorandum of understanding aimed at increasing joint anti-people-smuggling efforts and intelligence-sharing.

The talks follow a surge this year in the number of asylum-seeker boats leaving Sri Lanka for Australia. Senior Australian envoy Brian McCarthy and people-smuggling ambassador Peter Woolcott will stay on in Colombo for a series of meetings aimed at hammering out the details of the agreements.

Yesterday, Sri Lankan Foreign Ministry secretary Romesh Jayasinghe said there was a need for a clear distinction between genuine refugees and those not in need of protection. “The fact is that the (1951 Refugee Convention) provides for refuge in instances when there is a well-founded fear,” Mr Jayasinghe said. “I would submit to you that there is no such situation in Sri Lanka.”

Mr Jayasinghe said the legal status of the separatist Tamil Tigers, or LTTE – whose defeat in May by the Sri Lankan government triggered the massive internal displacement Labor says is behind the surge in boats – was also a significant issue for Colombo. “The LTTE in the form it was known is no more,” Mr Jayasinghe said. “But there are sinister elements that are endeavouring to try to re-stoke the cinders of secessionism. It is necessary to be vigilant and prevent such attempts. “That’s the position that was presented quite clearly by our side to our Australian guests.”

At a press conference on Monday, Sri Lankan Foreign Minister Rohitha Bogollagama explicitly linked the Tamil Tigers with people-smuggling: “Sri Lanka’s stand has always remained, that people-smuggling has been part of terrorist activities – it has previously been associated with LTTE activities.”

The Tamil Tigers are a banned terrorist organisation in the US and Europe but have never been proscribed in Australia.

Yesterday, the 78 Sri Lankans on board the Customs ship Oceanic Viking managed to communicate by hand signals that they remained unwilling to come ashore to a detention centre at Tanjung Pinang, on Indonesia’s Bintan island. As another delegation of Australian officials boarded the vessel in a bid to break the deadlock, some of the Sri Lankans made crossed forearm gestures to demonstrate there was still no deal. The major sticking point remains the issue of where the asylum-seekers would be held if they agreed to go ashore, with many having already spent several years in Indonesian detention centres.

Australian claims that the Indonesian side is considering a request to house the Sri Lankans in community facilities has been met with bewilderment by senior officials, on and off the record.

SOURCE

Advertisements