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Tougher screening for Tamils over fears of an influx of ex-Tigers fleeing Sri Lanka – The Australian

[MISC, Tuesday, 30 June 2009 06:59 No Comment]

FEARS that ex-Tamil fighters may be passing themselves off as refugees will lead to the latest boatload of unauthorised arrivals – believed to be Tamils – being subjected to a particularly rigorous security screening process.

The Australian has been told the recent defeat of the Tamil Tigers in their stronghold in northeastern Sri Lanka has led to concerns Tamil fighters may seek to flee the island amid fears of government retribution.

Tamils are understood to comprise most of the 194 asylum-seekers who arrived at Christmas Island on Sunday, the largest single group since the current influx began last year.

As the latest arrivals push the Christmas Island detention centre closer to capacity, the federal government yesterday formalised a five-year contract with Serco Australia, the local arm of British company Serco Group, to operate Australia’s seven detention centres.

The five-year, $370 million contract will take effect next month, with the transition from existing operator Global Solutions Limited expected to be complete by November.

In announcing the decision to award the contract to Serco, a spokesman for the Immigration Department said there would be a "stronger focus on the rights and wellbeing of people in detention".

GSL was subject to criticism over its treatment of detainees after incidents such as the death of an Aboriginal man while being transported in extreme heat in a prison van without a functioning airconditioning system.

In 2005, GSL was fined almost $500,000 over mistreatment of immigration detainees.

One senior government source told The Australian authorities were "conscious" of the potential security risk the situation in Sri Lanka presented.

"That’s at the forefront of everyone’s mind," the source told The Australian.

"We’re certainly conscious of the issue."

Almost 300 Sri Lankans have so far arrived by boat in the current wave of arrivals, including those on Sunday’s boat.

While some are understood to be ethnic Tamils, as opposed to Sinhalese, none has so far qualified as a refugee.

There is no specific suggestion that ex-Tamil Tigers were among the 194 intercepted on Sunday.

The government’s concerns echo those expressed by the Howard government in the aftermath of the 2001 invasion of Afghanistan that defeated Taliban fighters might employ people-smugglers as a means of making their escape.

Yesterday, an Immigration Department spokesman denied the influx of boats threatened to overwhelm the detention facilities on Christmas Island.

The main centre can hold 800, while the island’s total detention capacity is 1200.

The latest boat took the total number of asylum-seekers on the island to about 730, while most of the 194 who arrived on Sunday will join the 356 asylum-seekers already in the detention centre.

"We have contingency arrangements in place," the spokesman said. "We are quite confident we will be able to manage the latest arrivals."

Sunday’s boat, easily the biggest to arrive as part of this latest spate of arrivals, appears to have travelled from Sri Lanka to northern Malaysia.

The boat, the 16th this year, contained mostly men, although some women and children are thought to have been on board.

[Full Coverage]

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