Saturday, November 29, 2014

Tamil Refugees Returned from Togo, Voluntarily or Not

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Lomé, Togo. Photograph by John Connell.

As reported last month, 209 Tamil refugees, purportedly en route from Sri Lanka to Canada, had thousands of dollars taken from them before being abandoned by their traffickers in the Togo’s capital of Lomé last year.

Since then, around 30 women and children have been returned to Sri Lanka supposedly voluntarily. The International Organisation for Migration and the UN High Commission for Refugees were unable to grant journalists access to the refugees who are being handled by the Togolese military, border control and national human rights organisation.

For the past year, the refugees have been kept in an open air stadium in extremely poor conditions, being used as unpaid domestic staff by soldiers. The Red Cross has had medical access to them in the last few weeks and the process of returning refugees to Sri Lanka is now under way.

Many, if not all, the refugees – who fled Sri Lanka’s civil war in 2008 and are believed to have been smuggled by ex-LTTE (Tamil Tiger) combatants – presumably hold a well-founded fear of persecution upon their return. This is a criterion for asylum.

This fact, as well as reports from the airport in Lomé, conflict with the official line that refugees are returning voluntarily and not seeking formal asylum in Togo or elsewhere. The refugees have been seen being forced from vans, were denied access to by reporters, and led into the airport under tight security for their repatriation to Sri Lanka.

Their plight is rather extraordinary but is also indicative of the weak global infrastructure to deal with the aftermath of civil wars. West Africa’s development in shipping and trade coupled with near stagnant reforms in governance, rights and border control makes it an easy target for those in need of a haven for smuggling goods, laundering money and trafficking arms and people. Refugees like the Tamils in Lomé are victims of both exploitation by traffickers and the failings of those organisations mandated to protect them.

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