Australians question validity of Sri Lankan asylum claims

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Australian politicians have questioned the validity of asylum claims made by Sri Lankan nationals after 16 Sri Lankan nationals held on Christmas Island were sent back to Sri Lanka at their own request rather than be sent to Nauru while their asylum claims are processed.

The 16 men had been held on Christmas Island which is the closest Australian territory to Indonesia. The island lies in the Indian Ocean 2,600km northwest of Perth in Western Australia. It is also only 500km south of Indonesia. Consequently, migrants will often try to reach Christmas Island by sea. They can then claim asylum from the Australian government. So far this year, 3,536 Sri Lankans have landed on Australian soil. Most came by boat from Indonesia, ferried by people smugglers. Last year only 211 Sri Lankan nationals arrived.

More Sri Lankans have claimed asylum this year than did so annually at the height of the Sri Lankan civil war between government forces and the Tamil Tigers. That war ended in 2008. There are also more Sri Lankans arriving in Australia than there are Afghans. So far this year, 2,996 Afghans have arrived.

Only 163 Sri Lankans have so far been granted asylum this year but Liberal MP Steve Ciobo says that the decision of the 16 men to ask to be sent back to Sri Lanka casts doubt on all Sri Lankan asylum claims.

Mr Ciobo told Sky News 'What this is a sign of is that a lot of asylum seekers that are coming to this country are not genuine refugees. They're people trying to take advantage of [The Labor government's] soft immigration laws.'

The opposition's spokeswoman on immigration, Julie Bishop, said that the decision of the 16 casts doubt on every Sri Lankan asylum claim since the end of the Sri Lankan civil war. Interviewed on ABC News, she questioned why, if the men were truly fleeing persecution, they would choose to return to Sri Lanka rather than travel to the safe haven of Nauru.

However, Steve Riemer of the Refugee Action Coalition said that the decision of the 16 proved nothing about the plight of Sri Lankans in general. 'The fact that there are 16 people who have consented, or been pressured, into returning doesn't tell us anything about the overall situation of all of the other Sri Lankans who are still in the Australian system'. He said that, while the civil war was over, the plight of many Tamils remained dire. 'There are reports of disappearances [and] torture by the Sri Lankan authorities,' he said.

Australian immigration minister Chris Bowen said that the decision of the 16 men to travel to Nauru showed that the decision to re-open the camp on Nauru would help to deter people from travelling to Australia to seek asylum.

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