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By Nathan Sri and Brami Jegan from the Australian Tamil Congress

‘Queue jumpers’, ‘boat people’, ‘illegal immigrants’…

Such catch phrases have become convenient political sound bites over the last few weeks.

While both sides of parliament continue to point the finger at each other and the media frenzy continues unabated, we forget we are dealing with human lives that are in need of protection, safety and security.

Have we forgotten our responsibilities as a signatory to the United Nations Charter on Human Rights and our duty as human beings to protect the weak and the less fortunate?

Instead, the lives of men, women and children have become political pawns.

This influx of people arriving by boat has nothing to do with Kevin Rudd’s border protection policies. From January 2008 to June 2009, only 750 people arrived by boat compared to 43 boats carrying more than 5500 asylum seekers after the outbreak of the Iraq and Afghan wars.

We are now witnessing the utter desperation of the minority Tamil ethnics of Sri Lanka who have lived through half a century of oppression and almost 30 years of a horrific civil conflict, one in which more than 20,000 Tamil civilians were killed in the Sri Lankan Government’s final offensive against the Tamil Tiger separatists this year.

The end of the war in May has seen the imprisonment of nearly 300,000 Tamils in government-run internment camps with no freedom of movement, and inadequate food, water, sanitation, medical supplies and education. There are allegations of abductions, torture and rape.

Though it’s been six months since the war ended, little has changed within the camps. There is still no unfettered access for the UN, the media or the Red Cross.  In fact the UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) spokesperson Andrej Mahecic has said that camp conditions are deteriorating.

A few inmates are being released, but not as free citizens of Sri Lanka. Reports tell of detainees being transferred to transit camps, being re-arrested or confined to remain in government-designated areas.

For the Tamils in Sri Lanka the future is bleak. So much so that risking their lives on a rickety old boat, and leaving their family behind is a better option than living in their country of birth.

Recently, Foreign Minister Stephen Smith flew to Sri Lanka for high-level discussions with the Sri Lankan Government. According to media reports and an MOU, stopping the people smuggling racket was the focal point.

What about discussing the release of thousands of Tamils indefinitely detained in the military camps? What about discussing the ethnically motivated reasons for the detainment of the Tamils? What about the allegations of human rights abuses before, during and after the civil conflict? Will all Sri Lankan’s have equal access to justice and an opportunity to live without fear of oppression?

It is time Australia took a leadership role in its region and worked to end the human rights abuses in Sri Lanka. If the leaders of our country have the conviction and moral fortitude to do so, Australia will have a very public opportunity to play a key role at the end of November at the Commonwealth Heads of Government meeting in Trinidad and Tobago.

The Federal Government’s preoccupation with apportioning blame to people smugglers is not exposing the root cause or ‘push factor’ of why men, women and children are being driven into these leaky boats in the first place. Until the military imprisonment of Tamils in Sri Lanka stops, until all citizens of Sri Lanka are accorded human rights, the boats will keep coming. There is no alternative.

The Australian Tamil congress is running the “300,000 Reasons” campaign to raise awareness of the plight of up to 300,000 Tamils interned in military camps in Sri Lanka who continue to face ethnically motivated oppression. Please go to www.300000.com.au to show your support.