By Maria Caspani
LONDON (AlertNet) - The British government needs to review its asylum policy to ensure that people who are forcibly sent back to Sri Lanka are not at risk of torture and ill-treatment on their return, Human Rights Watch said.
In a report issued on Tuesday, the U.S.-based rights group said Sri Lankan security forces were still using rape to torture and extract confessions from suspected Tamil separatists almost four years after the country's civil war ended.
"(A) critical area where the UK government needs to think again is in relation to its asylum policy because we have documented cases...where people have been forcibly returned from the United Kingdom to Sri Lanka and have then been tortured and ill-treated on their return," David Mepham, UK director at Human Rights Watch, told AlertNet.
"And it’s quite wrong that the UK government is still operating on a basis of a kind of flawed assessment process...which doesn’t properly assess the risks facing Tamils who were returned to Sri Lanka from this country," he said.
Mepham said a flight carrying 60 Sri Lankan nationals was scheduled to leave Britain for Sri Lanka on Thursday and he was not confident that "there aren’t some people on that flight who might be at risk of being tortured and ill-treated on their return."
"Each claim for asylum is considered on its individual merits — and where we find individuals are in need of our protection, for example if they are at real risk of being tortured or ill treatment on return, we will give it," a UK Border Agency (UKBA) spokesman said in a statement.
“We constantly review the situation in Sri Lanka and the current position, supported by the European Court of Human Rights, is that not every Tamil asylum seeker requires our protection. We will consider the outcome of the ongoing Country Guidance case on returns to Sri Lanka once concluded,” the statement added.
Mepham said Britain had been operating so-called 'charter flights' over a number of years to deport thousands of Sri Lankan nationals - among other asylum seekers - and that HRW was "very concerned that some people who are forcibly removed have been tortured on return."
He said HRW had evidence of 15 cases acknowledged by the British government, in which Sri Lankans who had had their asylum claims denied, were then granted asylum when they requested it again for a second time.
"Often the UK government contested it so there were cases where courts had to intervene to give them asylum status, but all 15 claimed that they were tortured in that period," Mepham said. "And the British government continues to say that there are no credible allegations that people who have been removed from the UK have been involved in torture."
He said it was particularly important for Britain to take a tougher stance on the report's allegations in the light of Foreign Secretary William Hague's recent comments on the importance of combating sexual violence.
In its report, HRW documented 75 cases of predominantly Tamil men and women who said they were held in Sri Lankan detention centres and repeatedly raped and sexually abused by the military, police and intelligence officials.
Tens of thousands of people were killed in 2009, in the final months of a war that began in 1983, according to a U.N. panel, as government troops advanced on the last stronghold of the rebels fighting for an independent homeland.
The U.N. said it had "credible allegations" that both Sri Lankan troops and Tamil Tigers carried out atrocities and war crimes, and said the government had most of the responsibility for the deaths.
Reacting to the HRW report, Sri Lankan ambassador to India Prasad Kariyawasam told Reuters "until there is a proper examination ... in the Sri Lankan court system, we will not be able to accept these allegations."
He said the report was "a well-timed effort" to discredit Sri Lanka ahead of a vote on a U.S.-backed resolution criticising it at the U.N. Human Rights Council in Geneva this week.
Mepham said one of the most striking features of the report was the almost equal ratio of men and women who were tortured and raped by Sri Lankan security forces.
Of the 75 people who said they had been sexually abused and tortured between 2009 and 2012, 31 were men, 41 women and three boys under 18, unlike most conflicts in which women are the main victims of rape, he said.
("It is) really shocking that this was being used as a sort of tactic of intimidation and coercion by the Sri Lankan government and security forces against the minority Tamil population," Mepham said.