Sri Lankan asylum seekers held on Pacific island camps who could potentially find new lives in the US are free to return home without fear of persecution, the Sri Lankan prime minister said yesterday.
Sri Lankan Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe made the comments during a visit to Australia in which he discussed with Australian Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull cooperation on combating people smuggling.
No Sri Lankan asylum seeker has reached Australia by boat since 2013, but Sri Lankans, Iranians and Afghans are the largest national groups among more than 2,000 asylum seekers living on the Pacific islands nations of Nauru and Papua New Guinea.
Australia pays the nations to house them.
Australia refuses to resettle any of them and US President Donald Trump has agreed to honor an deal made by the administration of former US president Barack Obama to take up to 1,250 of them.
Trump added that they would undergo “extreme vetting.”
Officials from the US Department of State’s Resettlement Support Center left Nauru last week after initial interviews with refugee candidates and a team arrived on Papua New Guinea’s men-only camp on Manus Island on Tuesday to commence interviews there, refugee advocate Ian Rintoul said.
The US embassy in Canberra later confirmed that the interviews had begun on Manus this week.
Behrouz Boochani, an Iranian asylum seeker and journalist who has been detained on Manus since 2013, said about 10 refugees were interviewed by officials from the resettlement agency yesterday.
The interviews lasted four hours and the refugees were told they would have just one further interview, with the US Department of Homeland Security, as part of the vetting process.
None of the refugees were told when that interview would take place or how long it would be until a decision is made, Boochani said by text message from Manus.
Many of the men have already languished on the island for nearly four years and are consumed with worry over their futures, he said.
Trump has called the resettlement deal “dumb,” leaving refugees concerned that it would be called off.
“We don’t know, do they really want to take people to America or not?” said Boochani, who fled Iran fearing arrest over his work for a Kurdish magazine.
Wickremesinghe said the Sri Lankan asylum seekers had broken Sri Lankan law by fleeing to Australia, but they had nothing to fear by returning.
“They are welcome to return to Sri Lanka and we won’t prosecute them,” Wickremesinghe told reporters. “Come back. All is forgiven ... It is quite safe in Sri Lanka.”
Sri Lanka has been attempting to reconcile its population since a bloody 26-year civil war ended in 2009.
Deakin University Southeast Asia expert Damien Kingsbury said all the Sri Lankan asylum seekers he knew of who were sent back by Australia or prevented by Sri Lankan authorities from leaving had been jailed. Dissatisfaction with the government is often interpreted as support for the Tamil Tigers.
“If the prime minister is offering a blanket amnesty, then that’s something quite new, but I don’t think the prime minister has the authority to do that,” Kingsbury said.
The Sri Lankan asylum seekers would be wary of assurances that they were safe to return, with Sri Lanka’s north still effectively under military occupation and subject to ongoing reports of human rights abuses.
“Things are not as bad as they were there a few years ago, but they’re still difficult,” Kingsbury said.
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