Australia: The other side of the problem
Deported for trying to address the serious problem of Asylum seekers from Sri Lanka
| by Brian Senewiratne
( December 29, 2012, Brisbane, Sri Lanka Guardian) “Singapore refused my right to travel to Malaysia or to Indonesia, which is not only high-handed but illegal. Singapore could stop me entering that country, but had no right to stop me from getting to another country,” A Sri Lankan Doctor based in Brisbane, Australia, Brian Senewiratne pointed in his letter to the Prime Minister Mrs. Julia Gillard.
Here is full text of the letter;
Hon Julia Gillard
Prime Minister of Australia
Office of the Prime Minister
Dear Prime Minister,
I am an 81 year old Consultant Specialist Physician, who has been an Australia citizen for 36 years. I have had a long-standing interest in human rights, in particular, the unresolved problem of asylum seekers and the way they are treated.
What Australia is doing is a violation of the UN Refugee Convention, the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child and the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, signed and ratified by Australia. It is also a violation of the Australian Migration Act and even the Australian Constitution 1901(Section 75(V)).
I have been particularly concerned about the so-called ‘push-factors’ which make people seek asylum in Australia and other countries.
The problem of asylum seekers trying to get to Australia has also created problems in Malaysia and Indonesia. Moreover, as you well know, there have also been attempts to use these countries (and others) as off shore detention centres for asylum seekers. This is illegal.
Concerned Malaysians invited me to address two meetings in Malaysia (15th December 2012 in Johor, and the following day in Kuala Lumpur). Since Johor is literally next to Singapore, it made sense to fly to Singapore and take a coach to Johor.
On arrival in Singapore on the 14th December (today), I was refused admission, held incommunicado in a locked room for five hours without even basic amenities such as food or water, or facilities such as a toilet, and deported by an armed policeman to the flight back to Brisbane.
My request for the return of my passport, a fundamental right, was refused. It was only given back to me in Brisbane, and that too after a significant delay.
Singapore refused my right to travel to Malaysia or to Indonesia, which is not only high-handed but illegal. Singapore could stop me entering that country, but had no right to stop me from getting to another country.
This is a serious problem that has already generated national and international concern. I hope it will be taken up in the Australian parliament after the recess.
I am entitled to an explanation. As a citizen of this country, and you, as the Prime Minister, have a duty to get this for me, if being an Australian citizen is to have any meaning.
The date of this letter is correct since it was written on the way back home. The delay in sending it to you is that I have rarely written a letter in anger, but have allowed a ‘cooling off’ period to lapse, and to also try and make sense of this senseless act.
I will set out in detail what was done to me. I will first give a brief account of who I am and what I was trying to do. This should not be necessary, since no citizen of this country should be treated like this.
1. I have been an Australian citizen for 36 years (from 1976).
2. I am a Consultant Physician, and have, for two and a half decades, been a Senior Visiting Physician in a major teaching Hospital in Brisbane (Princess Alexandra Hospital), and a Clinical Associate Professor of Medicine. I currently work as a Consultant Physician in Brisbane. I have a Specialist registration in General Medicine and in Gastroenterology.
3. In addition to Medicine, I have had a long-term commitment to human rights and have been the recipient of a dozen international awards, which I will not list here but will be glad to send you.
4. I have been invited to address meetings in the British parliament (‘House of Commons’), the European Parliament, the Indian Parliamentary complex, the Canadian parliamentary complex, and even the Australian parliament. I was granted an audience with the Nobel Laureate, Archbishop Desmond Tutu in South Africa, to discuss the escalation of human rights violation in Sri Lanka which has been of serious concern to him.
I have addressed scores of meetings in Australia and across the world over three decades, and attended the UN Human Rights Council meetings in Geneva.
I have been invited to meet, and met, staff of the Office of the UN Special Adviser on the Prevention of Genocide in New York.
5. I am of Sri Lankan origin, from the majority Sinhalese community, and not from the brutalised Tamil community who form the vast majority of asylum seekers arriving in Australia. The past President of Sri Lanka, Chandrika Bandaranaike Kumaratunga, was my cousin. When I met Archbishop Tutu, he repeatedly said, “Isn’t it wonderful that a Sinhalese should be campaigning for the Tamils for more than six decades”.
6. I have published scores of articles on the humanitarian crisis in Sri Lanka, the war crimes and crimes against humanity that have been committed, the dismantling of democracy and the establishment of a Totalitarian State. I have also recorded nearly a dozen dvds to show the humanitarian crisis in that country.
7. I have been seriously concerned with what is going on behind the closed and censored doors of Sri Lanka where despite the end of the ‘war’, the Sri Lankan government still refuses to allow Amnesty International (AI), Human Rights Watch (HRW), International Crisis Group (ICG), and all independent international observers, access to the Tamil areas in the North and East.
8. I have also been concerned with the fall out of the chaos in Sri Lanka, especially on countries such as Australia, and the way asylum seekers are treated by Australia. As I have said, there is overwhelming evidence that asylum seekers and refugees are treated in Australia in violation of international Conventions and even domestic laws and the Australian Constitution which I have indicated earlier.
9. I have nothing to gain personally from getting involved in all this except my concern for human beings and the way they are treated by a succession of Sri Lankan governments, and a succession of Australian governments.
10. Of serious concern has been the disinformation campaign of the Sri Lankan government as to what has gone on, and is still going on, to this very day, in that country. It is to address this disinformation campaign that I have spent thousands of dollars of my money and thousands of hours of time and energy, over many years.
1. There have been international concerns about the humanitarian situation in Sri Lanka, in particular, the human rights of the Tamil people.
2. This was discussed extensively in the March 2012 meeting of the UN Human Rights Council (HRC) in Geneva, the November-December 2012 UN Universal Periodic Review, and is to be discussed again at the March 2013 meeting of the UN HRC.
3. Every major human rights group in the world (AI, HRW, ICG) has continued to publish report after report to express their concerns. So has the UN Secretary-General’s Panel of Experts appointed by him to look into accountability in Sri Lanka, which submitted a devastating 200 page Report on 31 March 2012. The Sri Lankan government was accused of lying. These senior lawyers strongly recommended an international independent investigation into war crimes and crimes against humanity which the Sri Lankan government has flatly rejected.
4. This humanitarian problem in Sri Lanka is resulting in a flood of asylum seekers not only to Australia and New Zealand, but to Malaysia, Indonesia, India and several western countries (the UK, Europe, Canada, and the USA). It is therefore not just a problem confined to Australia.
5. Concerned people in Malaysia, many of them respected members of civil society, decided to act. The first time was in March 2009, and the again in December 2012.
In March 2009, when I was returning to Australia after receiving a major international award for human rights in Canada, I was told that there were hundreds of people in Malaysia who wanted to hear me. Would I stop over in Malaysia to address several meetings in Kuala Lumpur and in Penang? I said I would. Police permission was obtained for these meetings.
Here is the Canadian Award they referred to:
“Canadians for Genocide Education. Educators Award 2009.
Presented on March 25,2009 to
Dr Brian Senewiratne.
In recognition of his dedication to Inclusivity and Equity in Genocide Education.
James Katieh Executive Secretary, John Gregorovich Chairman.
In accepting the Award, I chose to speak on:
“Peace with Justice in Sri Lanka. Genocide of Sri Lankan Tamils. Its Causes and Solutions”.
Canadians for Genocide Education consists of some 46 groups, which include the
Buddhist Communities of Greater Toronto, the Canadian Islamic Congress, and
many others. Here is the contact: JK_CGE@hotmail.com.
However, when I arrived in Kuala Lumpur on 27th March 2009, I was held at Immigration for 7 hours and deported. The ‘reason’ was equally vague, “Your presence in Malaysia is a ‘security concern’”. It was unclear how a 79 year old man who had never handled a weapon in his life was a ‘security concern’ to Malaysia.
I was taken by six policemen (!), two security guards and as Immigration officer to the next flight to Brisbane. At least they gave me back my passport, which is more than what Singapore did in December 2012.
Investigating this, it was revealed that the Malaysian authorities were responding to a direct request from the then Sri Lankan Foreign Minister.
The Malaysian Award (which I could not collect) was posted to me. It was a pewter plaque:
“The Malaysian-Sri Lankan Diaspora Fellowship Award is presented to
Associate Professor Dr Brian Senewiratne
Consulting Professor, Princess Alexandra Hospital, Brisbane
For his excellent contribution to the International Sri Lankan Diaspora in promoting peace and goodwill in campaigning for human rights and safety of globally displaced peoples.
27th March 2009.
With increasing concerns about what was going on behind the closed and censored doors of Sri Lanka which was responsible for the flood of asylum seekers/refugees to Malaysia, concerned Malaysians decided to invite me back to Malaysia to address two meetings in Johor (15th December) and Kuala Lumpur (16th December).
I have already explained why I was in Singapore – to board the coach to adjacent Johor (in Malaysia) to address the first meeting, and then proceed to Kuala Lumpur, address another meeting, and then fly out to Indonesia (for some medical commitments), and return to Brisbane on Christmas Day.
What was this all about?
As I have said, I was invited to Malaysia to address two meetings on asylum seekers, the push factors from Sri Lanka, and the problem of handling refugees/asylum seekers on arrival here via Malaysia or sent there by the Australian government.
These addresses were for an invited audience of concerned people. They were not public demonstrations or rabble rousing activities. Nor were they public appeals urging the people to storm the Sri Lankan Embassy. They were ‘closed doors’ serious discussions with much respected people of high standing in Malaysia.
The sequence of events
With an Australian passport, I did not need a visa to enter either Singapore or Malaysia.
I left Brisbane at 11.45 pm on 13th December, 2012, on a Singapore airlines flight, and arrived in Singapore at 5.10 am on 14th December. My luggage was off loaded in Singapore.
1) I got to the immigration counter and produced the arrival card and my passport. The Immigration officer typed in my details, raised his eyebrows and said ‘Oh!”. This raising of eyebrows was done three times. Cleary he had seen something ‘interesting’ or ‘of concern’. What did he see that was of concern? He asked me to stand aside till he saw his ‘boss’.
2) After some time another man, presumably the ‘boss’, arrived and asked me to come with him. He punched in a code which opened a door to a very small room. He asked me to sit down and wait. There were some plastic chairs, a notice on the wall that cameras, mobile phones etc could not be used and a glass window for ‘observation’. It clearly was, since as soon as my mobile phone rang, an officer was there in a flash and pointed to the notice on the wall. “No phones allowed”.
There was certainly no toilet –something that worried me because I am on a diuretic (which increases urine flow – treatment for early heart failure), and a moderately severe prostate obstruction. At the age of 81, on a diuretic and an enlarged prostate, lack of access to a toilet is a concern.
3) From time to time some dark Asian boys were led into this room. They spoke Tamil, a language I do not understand. They were taken in one by one to another room, they reappeared with a piece of paper, the locked door was opened and they were sent out. It is important to appreciate that immigration officers were constantly coming in and out of this locked room, though they did not pay any attention to me. I just sat, and sat, and sat - 5.30am, 6.00 am, 6.30am, 7.00 am.
4) With nothing to do, I thought I would get my powerpoint presentation sorted out and got out my computer. The immigration officer was there in a flash, “No computers”. I summoned up enough courage to do the unthinkable in Singapore– to ask, “Why can I not use my computer?”
5) The Officer seemed irritated that I had actually questioned him. “How do I know that you do not have a transmitting device in your computer to communicate”. I said that I had no such device and he was welcome to check my computer. He said “I will ask my boss”.
He did not even bother to tell me the answer, but simply stood at the window and crossed his arms – “No” it was.
6) It was nearly 8am. My last meal was at about 3.30am on the plane and I was beginning to feel faint. I asked one of the immigration officers coming in and out of the room, whether I could get something to eat and drink. I was not asking for a donation. I said I would pay for it. It was the usual “No”.
I then asked for the toilet, explaining that my bladder was severely distended. The answer was the now familiar “No”.
I could, of course, have wet my pants but this might have been interpreted, “He was so guilty that he even wet his pants”. Moreover, I had no change of clothes, these being in my suitcase which was inaccessible. I could have simply urinated in a corner of the room. Then there was the possibility of being charged for ‘wilful damage to government property’. There are heaps of reasons (or no reason at all) to be charged in all dictatorships and totalitarian regimes, which I know full well having studied Singapore’s stable-mate, Sri Lanka.
To ‘fast-forward’ this, when Immigration, or to give it its full name, Singapore Immigration and Checkpoint Authority – SICA) was contacted by the Singapore media, they said that what I had claimed was untrue. Would they like me to send my lawyer to Singapore to that locked room where they can show him the invisible toilet? If what Singapore’s ICA did was outrageous – to hold incommunicado in a locked room an Australian citizen - the least they can do is not to lie about what happened.
7) At 8 am an Immigration officer came and spoke with me in the locked room. “You can go to Malaysia but not by coach. You will have to fly”. I could not see his logic unless he thought that in the 2 hours I was going to be in Singapore, I would blow the place up or start a riot. If that was his concern, he could have searched me, strip searched if necessary.
I was not going to push my luck by questioning his logic. This is Singapore
where one does not open one’s mouth except to eat – and I was not doing
any of that.
8) At 8.30 am he reappeared with a different story. I could not go to Malaysia by air or land. It is important to find out what happened between 8am and 8.30am for this change of mind. Was there a call to Malaysia, or Australia, or even bonny Sri Lanka (to give it its thoroughly inaccurate name, the Democratic Socialist Republic of Sri Lanka – about as ‘democratic’ as Singapore)?
9) I asked him whether I could go to Bali (Indonesia) where I had medical work to do and had a hotel booked for the 17th, but could find accommodation immediately (14th). The answer was “No. From Brisbane you came, to Brisbane you go. You are being deported. A Police officer will come to take you to the next flight to Brisbane”.
10) Why did I not telephone the Australian High Commissioner in Singapore? After all, the man is paid by me (and all other taxpayers in Australia) to look after Australians. Here was an Australian citizen and taxpayer facing difficulties – to put it mildly.
Well, I could not because I was not allowed to use my mobile phone. I did not want to press the issue because of the real possibility that they would say, “You were born in Sri Lanka, to Sri Lanka you go”. That would have been a disaster in a country that has the world’s highest rate of involuntary disappearances.
Sri Lanka would have welcomed my arrival and even provided free transport – a white van with no number plates - that would have taken me to an undisclosed destination. In Sri Lankan language today, I would have been ‘white-vanned”.
11) At about 8.30 am a Police officer arrived to take me to the plane – a Singapore airline flight to Brisbane. We had to go in a series of trains from one terminal to the other. I noticed that the Police officer was armed. I asked him whether he was. He said, “Yes. There are auxiliary Police who are armed and some who are not armed. I am armed”. I ventured to ask him whether the weapon had live ammunition. He said, “Yes, it has live ammunition” - not the sort of thing you want to hear. I could only hope that the safety catch was on.
The Singapore authorities will have to explain the need for a policeman armed with live ammunition, to take an 81 year old unarmed man to the aircraft. Did they think that a sudden run was possible resulting in the need to open fire?
12) I thought I might inquire why I was being deported. The policeman said, “Oh Yes. Here is the Deportation Order”, and handed me the document I have already referred to. It was short and sweet, and said nothing. Here it is in full:
Notice of Refusal of Entry
Issued by the Immigration and Check-point Authority – “Notice of Refusal of Entry No DA 085308.
Place of issue Changi Airport PTB 11
This is to inform you that you are refused entry into Singapore for being ineligible for the issue of a pass under current Immigration policies
Signed CI 2 Tan Hock Guan Michael
For Controller of Immigration
I was conducted to my seat, a few rows from the toilet! During the flight some of the passengers who clearly knew me (I have worked in Brisbane as a Consultant Physician for 36 years) came and asked me, “Doc, are you alright? We saw a policeman bring you to the plane. Is there a problem?” I said that there was a ‘problem’ but that this was not the place to discuss it. I thanked them for their concerns.
This public humiliation raises legal issues by way of damage done to my medical practice in Brisbane. I will discuss this with my lawyers.
13) Eight hours later, I was back in Brisbane. Prime Minister Gillard, consider this: I got to the Brisbane airport 3 hours before the flight – as was required. A 7+ hour flight to Singapore. Then 5 hours in custody in a locked room. 7+ hours back. That is 23 hours. At 81, in heart failure (yes, mild, but heart failure nonetheless), it is not exactly a walk in the park.
14) The ordeal was not yet over. The plane landed at 9pm. There was then considerable difficulty in finding my passport. Since this is due to the incompetence of Singapore Airlines, I will not go into this.
What happened on the other side of the barrier in Singapore
I was not allowed to contact whoever had come to meet me in Singapore. I was later told what had happened.
Someone had flown into Singapore to meet me and take me to the coach. He came to the airport at 4.30 am, and waited for me.
Through the glass door, he saw the bags being picked up by the passengers. One black bag was going round and round on carousel 37. He tried to get to the bag to check the tag to see if it was mine. As he entered the area the alarm went off.
Security came and asked him what he was doing. He said, “I am trying to see if that bag belongs to Dr Brian Senewiratne”. The official said, “I will check it, but you first get out of this area”. He did. The official checked the label and told him that it was mine. He asked, “So where is the passenger? The official said, “He has been refused entry into Singapore”.
He went to the information desk and asked to see the passenger list. The answer, “No. See Immigration”. He did, and confirmed that I had been refused entry. He asked, “Can I speak with him? Answer: “No” “Can you tell him that I am here?” Answer: “No”. In desperation, he asked, ‘So, what can I do?”. The Official replied, “Get lost”. That is Singapore in a nut shell.
He did a little more than ‘getting lost’. He called Johor and cancelled the meeting I was to address. He cancelled the hotel booking where I was to spend the night before leaving for Kuala Lumpur. He called Kuala Lumpur and cancelled the meeting there and the hotel booking.
There was one point which might shed some light as to who was responsible. When he came out of the baggage area, there was a crowd of men talking in Sinhalese. They had probably come to ‘welcome’ me and make sure I had not entered Singapore. Sensing danger, he hurried on (wisely).
Questions that you should ask the Singapore Goverment
- Why was an Australian citizen with a valid passport deported?
- What are the “current Immigration policies” that made him “ineligible for the issue of a pass” to enter Singapore?
- What did the Immigration officer see on the computer that made him raise his
eyebrows (thrice), and say ‘Oh”? Who put it there and when?
- If there were ‘concerns’ about an Australian citizen, was the Australian High Commissioner in Singapore informed? If not, why not?
- Is the treatment given to an Australian citizen, an 81 year old Senior Specialist Physician, appropriate?
- What is the difference between travelling to Malaysia by coach or by air?
- Why was there a decision change between 8 am and 8.30 am – ‘You can go to Malaysia by air’ to ‘You cannot go to Malaysia?’
- What right had an Immigration officer to tell an Australian citizen where he could or could not go? His job was to allow him into Singapore or refuse entry, hand back his passport and luggage and allow him to go where he chose.
- What was the need for an armed Police officer to take him to the aircraft?
- Why was the Deportation Order not given to him by Immigration? Why was it done just before he entered the aircraft?
- Why was his Passport not returned to him when he left Singapore?
- What right had the Singapore authorities to hand it over to Security in Australia? Is Australian security a business of Singapore – and of a mere immigration officer at that?
- Did the Sri Lankan government or agents of the government, contact Singapore or vice versa?
- Did the Malaysian government or the Sri Lankan Embassy in Malaysia contact Singapore or vice versa?
- Did the Australian government contact Singapore about me, or vice versa?
- If the answer to the above three questions is ‘yes’, what was discussed and why was the Australian Embassy not informed.
- Did Rohan Guneratna, the supposed ‘world expert on terrorism’, a Sinhalese, working hand in glove with the Sri Lankan government, who is employed in Singapore, have anything to do with the deportation?
Who was responsible?
That, Prime Minister, is for you to find out. As a lawyer you should be able to ask the correct questions – “who would be threatened by what I had to say in Malaysia”? The possibilities are limited.
1. The Government of Sri Lanka – determined to prevent any information being presented as to what is going on behind the closed and censored doors of that country, which are responsible for people wanting to flee the country and seek asylum.
2. The Government of Australia whose handling of these asylum seekers is an absolute disgrace, and a violation of the UN Refugee Convention and others, including the Australian Constitution.
I am forwarding a copy of this letter to Julian Burnside QC, who has been heavily involved with asylum seekers/refugees, to Geoffrey Robertson QC, London, a former Australian and now a leading British lawyer who has expressed concern as to what is going on in Sri Lanka, to Senators Lee Rhiannon, Sarah Hanson-Young and Larissa Waters – all of the Green’s Party of which I am now a member, to the Refugee Council of Australia to be distributed to members of this exceptional organisation, to the Australian Refugee Foundation and its very distinguished Patrons, some of whom I have met, to former Democratic party leader, former Senator Andrew Bartlett, now in the Greens party, and to Hon Kevin Rudd MP, my Federal member of parliament.
I am also sending a copy to:
· Archbishop Desmond Tutu, whom I have met in Cape Town, and who has serious concerns about what is going on. He has expressed these frequently and forcefully.
· John Murphy, formerly the most senior British member of the European Parliament, whom I know very well. He has offered whatever help I need. I have no doubt that he will have this taken up in London.
· Judy Sgro, Canadian parliamentarian, and a former Minister of Immigration, whom I know and who has a particular interest in Sri Lanka.
· The Australian Medical Association of which I am a member.
A citizen of Australia, who has been recognised nationally and internationally for his work in human rights over six decades, was trying to address a serious problem facing this, and neighbouring countries. He is harassed and deported by another country on some very dubious grounds. Do you not think you should act?
Hon Kevin Rudd MP for Griffith.
Hon Bob Carr, Foreign Minister, DFAT, Canberra.
 In an outstanding article, Amir Butler, Australian Muslim Public Affairs Committee (AMPAC) has seriously questioned his activity. http://muslimvillage.com/forums/topic/58-who-is-rohan-gunaratna-the-self-proclaimed-al-qaeda-expert/