Desperate to call Australia home

Volunteers cook with Nigethan and Nirma. Photo by Lara Donald
“We are only seeking asylum to save our lives.” Lara Donald reports on Tamil refugees who fear they may be sent back to Sri Lanka.

Three years since the end of the Sri Lankan civil war and the ultimate disbandment of the Tamil Tigers (LTTE), the Tamil refugee community of Melbourne still struggles with the lasting effects of war.

Nirma Murugamoorthy never thought he would still be seeking asylum nine years after he first left Sri Lanka, hoping for a new life in Australia.

However, due to refugee laws in Australia, only now will he have his have an interview with the immigration department that will decide his fate.

The 33-year-old is works as a chef at Tamil Feasts, a social enterprise run by Ceres run CERES community environment park in Brunswick East to support network recently settled Tamil asylum seekers by celebrating their food and culture.

He and fellow Tamil Feasts chefs Nigethan Sithirasegaram and Niro Vithyasekar recall their journeys as refugees and the fears for their futures.

“In 2009, I left Sri Lanka on a small boat with about 30 others. It took one month until we got anywhere. Everyone was very seasick and in the last couple of days, the food ran out,” says Mr Murugamoorthy.

He was sent to an offshore processing facility on Christmas Island before being moved to Broadmeadows detention centre in Melbourne.

“For over six years we were locked up in detention centres, it felt like a prison,” Mr Vithyasekar says. “You have no contact with the people in charge. You have no idea what will happen to you or if you will ever get out.”

Lisa Fowler, a solicitor from the Collingwood-based Refugee and Immigration Legal Centre explains why the process has been drawn out.

“Although most of our Tamil asylum seekers arrived here prior to 2010, they were accessed under what we call non-statutory processes,” Ms Fowler says. “So even though some of those people were found to be refugees they did not require to be invited to apply for a visa and have only recently been invited to apply and a lot of those assessments are only now being redone.”

She says that though the majority of Tamils were found to be refugees when they first came to Australia, the department is now looking into the current situation of Sri Lanka again and is reassessing their claims to determine whether or not they need protection at this stage.

But she cites independent reports claiming that the current climate in Sri Lanka is still cause for concern for the Tamil people who have fled.

“They are still being suspected of their involvement with LTTE based on their ethnicity, their place of origin in Sri Lanka and on the basis that they’ve run away and applied for asylum in Australia,” she says.

“The reports indicate that the Sri Lankan government is highly sensitive to the reemergence of the LTTE and is highly suspicious of people returning from overseas.”


Desperate to call Australia home
Solicitor Lisa Fowler, outside her office. Photo by Lara Donald

There are also ongoing reports of arbitrary arrests upon arrival in Sri Lanka, harassment, torture and high rates of sexual violence towards Tamil women.

Nigethan Sithirasegaram was a fisherman living in rural north Sri Lanka. He says that although the 26-year long civil war had come to an end, the Sinhalese army continued to act violently against the Tamil people who are a minority in Sri Lanka.

After being assaulted, he fled to Australia by boat, leaving his young family behind.

“We don’t have equal rights in Sri Lanka,” Mr Sithirasegaram says. “That’s why we came here – we are only seeking asylum to save our lives.”

After being locked in detention for six years or more before their release into the community, these three men faced inevitable challenges integrating back into society.

Mr Murugamoorthy remembers his early experiences of trying to adapt to a different culture, all the while learning a new language and attain qualifications to get any sort of job in Australia.

“Six years of my life has been taken from me,” he says. “I lost my family, my education and what feels like my life.”

“To this day I am still fearful. There is still a constant threat for me or any of us [men at Tamil Feasts] getting deported.”

Solicitor Lisa Fowler comments on the political climate in Australia and its impact on refugees and asylum seekers.

“These things are highly politicised but when it comes down to it, looking at the legal requirements, it’s actually quite clear,” she says. “Without having all the white noise around the topic of asylum seekers, it comes down to the fact that every person has the right to apply for asylum and that’s the end of it.”