Tuesday, November 10, 2009

Warnings more Tamils will flee Sri Lanka

With the government facing continued pressure over asylum seekers, Australia's Foreign Minister Stephen Smith is in Colombo to seek a solution to what is a growing problem at home.

Foreign Minister Smith received assurances from the Sri Lankans that more would be done to crack down on people-smugglers and people movement from the minority Tamil community. But human rights advocates say the civil war has left the Tamils with little reason to remain in Sri Lanka, and unless something is done to improve the situation, Tamil asylum-seekers will continue to head for places like Australia.

Presenter: Michael Edwards
Speakers: Stephen Smith, Australian Foreign Minister; Jehan Perreira, executive director of the National Peace Council of Sri Lanka

MICHAEL EDWARDS: If the Government's biggest political problem of the moment is asylum seekers then the source of that angst centres on Sri Lanka.

Most of the current wave of those seeking asylum are Tamils, fleeing what they say is persecution following the end of the Sri Lankan civil war.

And it was Stephen Smith's job in Colombo to let the Sri Lankan Government know that it could be doing much more to stop the problem of people smuggling.

STEPHEN SMITH: In terms of capacity building and cooperation on prosecutions. We think there is more that we can do on information sharing which the Minister referred to.

So we face a heightened challenge from the criminal syndicates behind the people smuggling and we need to up our cooperation, up our efforts to combat that and that is what we have agreed to do today.

MICHAEL EDWARDS: Stephen Smith and his Sri Lankan counterpart Rohitha Bogollagama signed an agreement to boost law enforcement cooperation on people smuggling.

Mr Smith says it's a big step forward in tackling the problem.

But he also agrees with many, particularly human rights advocates, that the issue is not entirely about law enforcement.

The Foreign Minister also says that helping Sri Lanka rebuild after its civil war is an important factor in reducing the demand for people smuggling and he's pledged Australian support to help it do so.

STEPHEN SMITH: Sri Lanka faces the great challenge of, in the aftermath of a civil conflict, a terrible civil conflict which lasted for 25 to 30 years, to rebuild, reconstruct and to reconcile and heal and in that respect Australia wants to give Sri Lanka as much assistance as it can.

MICHAEL EDWARDS: Human rights advocates say the demand for people smuggling will continue unless something is done about the plight of Sri Lanka's Tamil community.

Jehan Perreira is the executive director of the National Peace Council of Sri Lanka.

JEHAN PERREIRA: Until I think the checkpoints are removed, Tamils feel that they are not specially, under special scrutiny by the military and until the Government comes up with the political solution, at least a political proposal that meets the aspirations of Tamils to be equal citizens, to have some power in the areas in which they are a majority, I think Tamils will want to leave Sri Lanka.

© ABC Radio Australia

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