It should now be much harder for Britain to deport Tamil asylum-seekers to Sri Lanka, after a new court ruling significantly revised the guidance for the country. Several important protection categories have been established, including for journalists, human rights activists and Tamil nationalists. The previous guidelines had allowed the UK Border Agency (UKBA) to deport Tamils on an almost industrial scale for 18 months from 2011 to 2013, despite mounting evidence that torture awaited those sent back to Sri Lanka.
On an unusually hot evening in London, immigration lawyers gathered on 12 July at the medieval Gray’s Inn for a briefing from the barristers who had battled assiduously in the courtroom to change the country guidance. The speakers gave practical advice on how solicitors should use the verdict to challenge deportations. ‘Look at your clients as if you are a Sri Lankan CID officer!’ exclaimed barrister Shivani Jegarajah, the leading counsel on the legal team, who warned that Tamil deportees are interrogated to establish their political connections.
From filming Tamil protesters in London, to developing face recognition software, there is a concerted attempt at using surveillance to stifle any criticism of Sri Lanka from the vast refugee communities living in exile. Evidence from expert witnesses strengthened my suspicion that the deportations from Britain were an integral part of the Sri Lankan State’s counter-insurgency campaign to prevent any resurgence of the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE), the main armed resistance group in a conflict which is decades long. The Judge concluded that ‘the focus of the Sri Lankan government’s concern has changed since the civil war ended in May 2009... The government’s present objective is to identify Tamil activists in the diaspora who are working for Tamil separatism and to destabilize the unitary Sri Lankan state.’
Most of these revelations came from the testimony of Professor Rohan Gunaratna, a terrorism ‘expert’ with close links to the Sri Lankan intelligence establishment. What is less often mentioned is that he heads a think-tank whose advisory committee includes Sir Richard Dearlove, former boss of British spy agency MI6. Gunaratna unashamedly introduced himself to the court as ‘the architect of the rehabilitation process’, in which 12,000 Tamils were indefinitely detained without trial at the end of the last war.
It seems that intelligence gathering even takes place at interviews with the Sri Lankan High Commission (SLHC) in London, where ostensibly the nationality of Tamil asylum-seekers is verified before the UKBA can forcibly remove them. Gunaratna confirmed that it was his ‘understanding that when being re-documented for return to Sri Lanka at SLHCs abroad, applicants were routinely asked about past LTTE links’. Arguably, the UKBA facilitated the identification of Tamil militants for the Sri Lankan authorities, before handing them over on a plate.
During the height of controversy around the deportations, the UK Foreign Office confidently assured campaigners that its man-on-the-ground, Malcolm Lewis (a ‘Migration Delivery Officer’), waited at the airport to ensure no deportees were detained or tortured upon disembarkation. But when cross-examined, Lewis admitted ‘that the Sri Lankan airport authorities were not stupid; they knew that the British High Commission’s, and indeed the world’s, eyes were on the returns process. The authorities would not be so “daft” as to harm returnees at the airport.’ It is particularly embarrassing for Lewis that Gunaratna then announced ‘there were no detention facilities at the airport; if a returnee was of interest by reason of past or current links with known LTTE front organizations abroad, they would be invited for interview once they had returned home, rather than at the airport.’
The late Tamil journalist and military analyst Sivaram explained that counter-insurgency is ‘about forcing the target population to lose its collective will to achieve the objective which you are trying to destroy or head off’. This court case, and the testimony of Rohan Gunaratna, firmly proves that the Tamil diaspora are part of the ‘target population’ which the Sri Lankan State seeks to control and suppress. Although Britain’s expulsion of Tamils may now decline, it must finally be acknowledged that its government’s deportation policy was valuable to Sri Lanka’s counter-insurgency campaign. Sivaram was assassinated for his outspoken ideas about what he called ‘countering counter-insurgency’. Perhaps resistance from activists to UKBA deportations has been a chapter in that story.