(Melbourne) – Australia’s immigration minister should raise concerns with Sri Lankan officials about alleged arbitrary arrest and torture of people who were refused asylum and sent back to Sri Lanka when he visits this week, the Human Rights Law Centre and Human Rights Watch said today.

Immigration Minister Chris Bowen is scheduled to visit Sri Lanka from May 2 to 4, 2012, to discuss migration issues, including preventing people smuggling from Sri Lanka to Australia. Bowen has said, “Australia will continue working closely with Sri Lanka on issues relating to people smuggling, including preventing and disrupting people smuggling ventures by air and sea.” The Human Rights Law Centre and Human Rights Watch called on Bowen and all senior Australian officials to ensure that respect for human rights and accountability for human rights violations are central to all discussions with their Sri Lankan counterparts.

“Rejected asylum seekers returned to Sri Lanka have been subject to arbitrary detention, torture, and other serious human rights abuses,” said Phil Lynch, executive director of the Human Rights Law Centre. “Efforts to counter and prevent people-smuggling should seek to protect asylum seekers, and shouldn’t interfere with their right to seek asylum.”

Australia cooperates closely with Sri Lanka on addressing people-smuggling. The Sri Lankan Department of Immigration and Emigration receives Australian aid, and Australia’s last federal budget included almost AU$11 million to deploy Australian federal police officers to Sri Lanka and other countries to “combat people smuggling.”

The Human Rights Law Centre and Human Rights Watch urged both governments to make certain that they do not undermine legal protections for asylum seekers in their efforts to counter people-smuggling. Human Rights Watch has documented at least eight cases in which people who had unsuccessfully sought asylum in the UK were returned to Sri Lanka and endured serious human rights abuses, including torture and rape. Some said they were beaten with batons and burned with cigarettes.

The Edmund Rice Center in Australia similarly documented in May 2010 that asylum seekers returned to Sri Lanka were handed over to the Criminal Investigation Department, the Sri Lankan police, and taken into custody. Some have been detained and assaulted.

In March an Australian citizen, Premakumar Gunaratnam, who was trying to form a political party in Sri Lanka, alleged that he was picked up and tortured in custody. Sri Lankan authorities subsequently deported him to Australia.

The United Nations Committee against Torture found in November 2011 that torture and ill-treatment in Sri Lanka are “widespread and persistent.” It stated that, “[The] continued and consistent allegations of widespread use of torture and other cruel, inhuman, or degrading treatment of suspects in police custody, especially to extract confessions or information to be used in criminal proceedings. The Committee is further concerned at reports that suggest that torture and ill-treatment perpetrated by state actors, both the military and the police, have continued in many parts of the country after the conflict ended in May 2009 and is still occurring in 2011.”

“Australia should ensure that human rights concerns and safeguards are paramount in any security, intelligence, and migration cooperation with Sri Lanka,” said Elaine Pearson, deputy Asia director at Human Rights Watch. “Australia is prohibited under the Refugees Convention and international human rights law from sending anyone to a country where they face torture and ill-treatment.”

Immigration Minister Bowen should also raise Australia’s broader concerns about the human rights situation in Sri Lanka during his visit, the organizations said. Specifically he should ask what the Sri Lankan government is doing to investigate and prosecute alleged war crimes during Sri Lanka’s 26-year-long conflict, which ended three years ago.

In March the UN Human Rights Council adopted a resolution on Sri Lanka showing strong international support for accountability for abuses committed by all sides to the conflict. The resolution calls upon the Sri Lankan government to fulfill its legal obligations toward justice and accountability, to expeditiously provide a comprehensive action plan to carry out the recommendations of its Lessons Learnt and Reconciliation Commission, and to address alleged violations of international law. It also encourages the Office of the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights and other UN human rights envoys to assist Sri Lanka in implementing these steps.

“Bowen should make it crystal clear though public and private statements that Australia supports international efforts at accountability, and that Sri Lanka has failed to deliver,” Lynch said. “In particular, Bowen should ask what efforts have been made to implement the UN Human Rights Council resolution to ensure justice for the numerous atrocities that occurred during the conflict.”