"How long must we stay like this? Don’t they realise our hardship?” a Tamil detainee in the Christmas Island Detention Centre asked when he called me on Thursday evening.
The detainee has been in the centre for ten months and still has no idea of his fate. There are more than 20 Tamil refugees from his boat that arrived last June locked up with no answer on whether their asylum claims will be accepted or rejected.
Every Thursday, in the overcrowded camp, the list of detainees granted visas to stay in Australia are announced. Every Thursday, the detainee and others like him receive no answer.
The detainee and other Tamils from his boat, who have fled persecution and genocide in Sri Lanka, are at the mercy of ASIO. Every time they speak to immigration officials, they are informed their position depends on whether ASIO grants them a “security clearance” or not.
They were told this would take two weeks. This was almost two months ago and they have heard no word.
When the detainee first called me at the Sydney office of Green Left Weekly in January, he was desperately waiting for news he had been granted a visa. Now, after ten months in hell with no idea what will happen, he is desperately waiting for any decision at all.
He told me,“I feel like even to go back [to Sri Lanka] would be better than staying here, even if it means I die.”
The Tamil refugees have fled a regime that last year, in the final months of its war against the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) that fought for an independent Tamil state, killed tens of thousands of civilians.
In the aftermath of the war, hundreds of thousands of Tamil civilians were incarcerated in concentration camps, in which torture, rape and disappearances were widely reported.
The detainee has no idea why he has been forced to wait so long for a security clearance. He said he lived in government-held areas in Sri Lanka, not territory held by the LTTE. He said his family had nothing to do with the LTTE and his father was simply a fisherperson.
It is unclear why it even matters — the LTTE no longer exists and only fought the Sri Lankan state. Australia already has a sizeable Tamil community that has never posed any threat to Australian society.
The detainee explained the desperate lengths the refugees have gone to in an attempt to find safety. He said his boat trip “was not a pleasant journey. It was very hard. We came through oceans, you know."
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