By Frank Connolly.
The High Court is about to adjudicate on the constitutionality of the direct-provision system for refugees. This is a story illustrating who the system affects, and how.
Ramesh (not his real name) was a respected journalist and talented, acclaimed, poet in Sri Lanka when he was arrested in 2008 on suspicion of having Tamil sympathies. One of his alleged crimes had been to question military authorities about Tamils who had been ‘disappeared’ by the Sri Lankan army. Another was to write about the illegal encroachment and seizure of resource rich Tamil lands by the Colombo government (not unlike the Israeli occupation of Palestinian lands) in north and east Sri Lanka.
His detailed and critical analysis of the massive Sethu Canal project in which powerful interests in the US, India and China have combined to develop the massive project with negative environmental, social and economic implications for the Tamil people was banned in Sri Lanka and India. His investigation of the notorious ‘White Van’ abductions by the army led to his own arrest at his home in Colombo in June 2008 and a year of torture. Recently married with a 6 month baby, Ramesh describes to Village what happened:
“I was blindfolded and tied and taken in a white van. My father tried to stop them but I pleaded with them not to attack him. They tortured me in the hidden torture camp, Panadagoda, with electric currents on my nipples, in my nostrils and on my penis. They put barbed wire in my anal area. They put petrol in a plastic bag and put my head in it. I was naked. They accused me of being a supporter of the Tamil Tigers, a spy for freedom fighters.
They wanted the names of high ranking Sri Lankan army officials who supported the Tamil tigers. They wanted to know how I knew about corruption in army business dealings that I had written about.
My eyes were covered. At one stage the soldiers released my blindfold and I had a chance to view the surroundings. I saw the ‘electric crematorium’ run by Sri Lankan army where they burned people and left their clothes, thousands of pieces of clothing, including women’s clothes. After five days of brutal torture and unconscious, they left me in the bush. I was taken into hiding by friends and after some days I travelled to India where I was hospitalised for six months”.
It was January 2009 and near the end of the 26-year war in which more than 200,000 people were killed. The conflict began when the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE, also known as the Tamil Tigers) sought to create an independent state in the north and east of the island. Between January and May 2009 the Sri Lankan military massacred tens of thousands of people as the Tigers prepared to surrender.
“When I was in India I was arrested by the authorities because of my political opinions and activities. They detained me without charge for almost nine months in a camp”, Rasheem recalled.
He was released with the help of Irish embassy staff in India and permitted to come to Dublin to act as an interpreter and witness at the People’s Permanent Tribunal of inquiry into the Sri Lankan conflict in January 2010, after which he applied for political asylum.
Following a rigorous and demeaning application process he was given refugee status and admitted to the direct-provision system for asylum seekers in 2010. Not before one retired garda assessing his application threatened to have him extradited to Sri Lanka to face subversion charges, and certain death. Unable to work, study, cook their native food or live a normal life, those in direct provision are expected to raise families and maintain a dignified existence on €19 a week. His experience in detention centres in Kilkenny, Waterford and Dublin is a harrowing indictment of how the Irish state treats some of the most vulnerable citizens of the world.
His final humiliation was when another asylum seeker, sharing an overcrowded space, urinated on his face as he slept in the Waterford centre. Ramesh recently left the direct provision service and is looking for a job. His mental health has inevitably suffered from years of ill treatment and prolonged separation from his wife and young child. The manner in which he has been treated by the Irish authorities has made matters worse.
The inhumane conditions have resulted in recent protests at several of the centres which are invariably in isolated locations miles from the nearest town and run by private commercial concerns with little interest in the quality of life of those in their care. Is it any wonder President Higgins and the media have been refused access to some of these places where hundreds of families are living as unhappy and unwelcome guests of the nation? •