Europe returns asylum-seeking Tamils to a dangerous Sri Lanka
Geneva — The Dutch government has secretly deported 45 young Tamils back to Sri Lanka, violating an understanding with the office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) and causing concern that other Western governments may start expelling Tamil refugees. According to diplomats here, the 45 Tamils arrived at Amsterdam's Schiphol Airport on Jan. 11 on an Air Lanka flight from Colombo, Sri Lanka. They had one-way air tickets to Berlin.
While in the transit lounge they were arrested by Dutch police and put on the Air Lanka flight back to Colombo. The operation was carried out in secrecy and the UNHCR representative in the Netherlands, Robert van Leeuwen, learned of it accidentally several days later.
``I was astonished and concerned,'' he said, adding that he had made a protest to the Dutch government and demanded a full inquiry.
On Jan. 10 last year, the UNHCR appealed to West European governments not to repatriate any Tamil asylum-seekers until the situation in Sri Lanka calmed down. The appeal was renewed May 1, and officials said it was more relevant than ever in the light of the recent upsurge in violence between the minority Tamils, many of whom want an independent state in Sri Lanka, and the majority Sinhalese.
Between 30,000 and 40,000 Tamils are thought to have fled Sri Lanka to Europe since communal violence erupted on the island in July 1983.
UNHCR officials added that Mr. Poul Hartling, the high commissioner, received assurances from the Dutch government that the appeal would be respected during a recent visit to the Netherlands. According to the Dutch Ministry of Justice, approximately 900 Tamils have asked for asylum in the Netherlands.
The assumption in Geneva is that the 45 Tamils deported from the Netherlands were all would-be asylum-seekers because East Berlin has been one of the favorite entry points into Western Europe for Tamils. Once in East Berlin they take advantage of the more lax controls with West Berlin and so enter West Germany.
Many of the Tamils now in Europe paid more than $500 for a ticket, and surrendered their passports to middlemen along the way. Antenypallai Rogation, one of 1,700 Tamils who has sought political asylum in Switzerland, said during a recent interview that he had flown to Rome from Sri Lanka, and been met by ``a white man who spoke English.''
According to Mr. Rogation, who is now waiting at a center in the Bern, the man demanded another $400 and accompanied Rogation and a group of other Tamils to Milan, Italy by train. As the train approached the Swiss frontier the Tamils were told to hide under the seats and not emerge for at least one hour. After they emerged they were in Switzerland. They got out at the first train station and asked for asylum.
The ease with which the Tamils have slipped across frontiers has caused considerable frustration, particularly in Switzerland and West Germany.
In Switzerland, the Tamils have lived in temporary shelter, and very few have been able to get work. There have also been reports of disputes with young Swiss.
Last October the Swiss minister of justice, Rudolf Friedrich, announced that all 1,700 Tamils in Switzerland would be repatriated if their individual appeals for asylum were rejected.
Mr. Friedrich's announcement was based on a report by two of his senior aides who spent eight days in Sri Lanka in August.
The two officials stated in their report that Sri Lankan security forces ``had not always been under control.'' They also reported that young Tamils are routinely arrested and questioned about membership of banned Tamil organizations. On June 1, Amnesty International, the human rights organization, had charged that arrests of Tamils in Sri Lanka were often followed by torture.
In spite of this, the aides concluded that Tamils could return to Sri Lanka without any risk. At the time, the Swiss had considered 171 requests for political asylum. All but one had been rejected.
Friedrich's ruling was suspended last December following the wave of attacks by Tamil separatists in Sri Lanka, and reprisals by government forces. But UN officials and diplomats here have expressed concern that the Dutch action could, as one official put it, ``open the flood gates'' and encourage governments to start ridding themselves of unwelcome Tamils.