In its haste to be tough on failed asylum seekers the UK is ignoring torture risks

  • @mephamd

In June 2011, a young ethnic Tamil man from Jaffna was deported to Sri Lanka by the UK Border Agency following the rejection of his claim for asylum. 

Soon after, he was taken to the police headquarters in Colombo, interrogated about his activities in London and severely tortured.

He was whipped with electric wires, suspended upside down, beaten with sand-filled plastic pipes and forced to sign a confession in Sinhala, a language he did not understand. 

In another case, a Tamil woman returned to Sri Lanka in May 2009, following the rejection of her asylum case by the UK authorities, was detained and tortured, including being sexual abused, by Sri Lankan security agents.

While sickening, these are not isolated examples. Sri Lanka's record of torturing and otherwise ill-treating members of the country's minority Tamil community is well documented, including in the UK government's annual report on human rights and democracy.

Yet disturbingly, the same UK government will today deport a group of Tamils to Sri Lanka, despite a growing body of evidence from Human Rights Watch and other organisations about the serious risks of torture facing Tamils returning from this and other countries. 

In 13 case studies published this week, Human Rights Watch found rejected Tamil asylum seekers from the UK and other countries who were subjected to arbitrary arrest, ill-treatment and torture on their arrival in Sri Lanka. Each case is supported by medical documentation. 

Given that we were able to interview only a very small number of returned Tamils - those who had managed to flee Sri Lanka and find their way back to the UK - it is reasonable to assume that the problem of torture facing those returned to Sri Lanka is more widespread.

The Sri Lankan security forces have long used torture against people deemed to be linked to the Tamil Tigers. However there is now growing evidence that peaceful political activity in opposition to the Sri Lankan government from within the UK, as well as real or imputed links to the Tamil Tigers, raises significantly the risks of torture for those who return.

In its haste to be tough on failed asylum seekers, the UK government and the UK Border Agency are not giving sufficient weight to these new risk factors.  The UK should suspend today's flight and impose a moratorium on Tamil returns, pending a thorough review of UK policy in this area and the introduction of new risk assessment guidelines.

This is essential if Tamils returning from the UK are to be protected from torture and abuse at the hands of the Sri Lankan authorities.

David Mepham is the UK Director of Human Rights Watch