South Asia

Sri Lanka: Fears for Tamils deported from UK

Tamils protest in the UK (May 2009)
Image caption There is a significant Tamil population in the UK

Twenty-six Sri Lankans deported by the UK have arrived back in Colombo on an overnight charter flight.

A BBC reporter said that the deportees were questioned and later released and that they appeared to be a mixture of failed asylum seekers and overstayers.

Human rights groups have criticised Britain, saying the mainly Tamil asylum seekers may not be safe. The UK government dismissed the fears.

Earlier this week it expressed concern about human rights in Sri Lanka.

Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch urged the UK not to deport Tamils to the country. Amnesty says it has "documented the endemic use of torture in Sri Lanka and a culture of impunity prevails".

Immigration Minister Damian Green said the UK "takes its international responsibilities seriously and considers each claim for asylum on its individual merits".

It was not immediately possible to get a Sri Lankan government comment.

But Sri Lanka's police spokesman said each returnee was questioned by the Criminal Investigation Department to ensure they had no criminal record. He said 15 of the 26 belonged to the Tamil minority, while seven were Muslim and four Sinhalese.

'Desperate'

The Sri Lankans left London on a chartered flight on Thursday.

"As part of our agreement with the Sri Lankan Government, 26 individuals who had been found to have no right to stay in the UK were removed on 17 June," the UK Home Office confirmed a day later.

Several in the group had told the BBC their lives were in danger.

The issue was also raised in the UK parliament by MP Siobhain McDonagh who said two of the Tamils concerned were her constituents.

She said one was formerly employed by a leading Tamil MP who had subsequently been arrested and detained by the Sri Lankan authorities.

"They are desperate and understandably so," she said.

Another man - believed to have served with Tamil Tiger rebels - is said to have tried to commit suicide. He told the BBC's Tamil service on Wednesday that his life would be in jeopardy if he were sent back.

Immigration officials say the man was taken to hospital but deemed fit to travel. His lawyer obtained a last-minute court order preventing his deportation and he is still in a UK detention centre.

The BBC's Charles Haviland in Colombo said the deportees emerged from the international airport throughout the day. By the late afternoon the International Organisation for Migration, which disbursed small grants to each returnee, said that all of them were out.

The parents of one man told the BBC he had breached rules by entering Britain on a study visa but taking paid work.

The UK Border Agency has said it is safe to send people to Sri Lanka because of what it calls "the improving situation" there. The Home Office added that it only undertakes returns to Sri Lanka when it is satisfied that the individual has no protection needs.

Yet in a human rights report in March, the British Foreign Office said it was concerned that disappearances and extra-judicial killings continued in the country.

And on Wednesday the Foreign Office called on Sri Lanka to investigate alleged atrocities against Tamil rebels following a Channel 4 documentary containing what it called "horrific" footage.

Sri Lanka dismissed the footage as fabricated.

Tensions

Sri Lanka's army defeated separatist Tamil Tiger rebels in May 2009, ending 26 years of war.

But two years on, many people in the Tamil-dominated north still live in fear and thousands are unaccounted for, either dead or perhaps secretly detained by security forces.

There have been several recent accounts of tensions between locals in the north and the Sinhalese-dominated army from the south.

Ethnic minority Tamil MPs say troops forcibly broke up a political meeting they were holding near the northern city of Jaffna on Thursday, creating fear among local people. The local commander said there was no substance to their allegations.

Last month a meeting of Tamil academics, discussing cultural issues, was reportedly disrupted by armed military personnel who accused them of trying to commemorate the Tamil Tigers - something the academics denied.

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