UK must stop removals of Tamils to Sri Lanka after damning new evidence of torture on return

Freedom from Torture today called on the UK government to stop all forcible removals of Tamils to Sri Lanka after damning evidence from Human Rights Watch that a number of individuals who were recently removed by the UK were detained and tortured on return.

Keith Best, Chief Executive of Freedom from Torture said:

"With 100 people due to be removed to Sri Lanka on a charter flight this Tuesday 28th February, it is imperative that government ministers move as swiftly as possible to suspend removals and prevent these individuals being returned to a demonstrable risk of torture on return. This flight must not leave British soil. This new evidence is the 'smoking gun' that proves that Tamils forcibly removed from the UK have come to serious harm on return. Some of the cases highlighted were refused asylum in the UK: the UK asylum system has clearly failed these people and decision-making by the UK Border Agency in individual cases cannot be relied upon to prevent future cases of torture on return."

Human Rights Watch has documented eight recent cases in which people forcibly returned to Sri Lanka have been subjected to torture, including refused asylum seekers removed from the UK on charter flights in 2011. Medical evidence supporting their claims has been obtained.

Keith Best said:

"The treatment of individuals in these cases is consistent with the evidence of ongoing torture in Sri Lanka forensically documented by Freedom from Torture and presented to the Committee Against Torture in November 2011. The torture techniques identified – beating, burning, suspension, asphyxiation techniques, rape – and the fact that many of those detained say they only escaped through the payment of bribes are a chilling reminder that torture continues to be perpetrated by both the army and police with stark impunity in Sri Lanka, despite the government's protestations to the Committee Against Torture of a 'zero tolerance' policy."

Freedom from Torture continues to receive a steady flow of referrals for Tamil asylum seekers in the UK who have been tortured recently in Sri Lanka. One man who has just arrived in the UK was forcibly conscripted to the LTTE during the civil war; he was detained in November 2011 and tortured by both police officers in the Criminal Investigation Department and members of the army for several weeks before escaping on payment of a bribe. Freedom from Torture had previously called on the UK government to update guidance for decision-makers within the asylum system and ensure robust monitoring of returnees in Sri Lanka to ensure safety. In light of this new evidence, the organisation is now calling for a full suspension of forced returns of Tamils to Sri Lanka.

Keith Best said:

"Enough is enough, it is clearly not safe for Tamils to be returned. Not only should the UK government suspend removals while a clear risk of torture remains, it should also take the opportunity of the upcoming Human Rights Council session which opens in Geneva on Monday to push for robust action on the international stage to hold those in Sri Lanka to account for serious abuses during and after the civil war. Sri Lanka has clearly failed to end this cycle of impunity and torture."

Freedom from Torture raised the alarm this week with Foreign Office Minister Alistair Burt after discovering that Tamils being returned on ordinary passenger flights are at even greater risk of detention and torture. Whilst those on the charter flights are met on arrival by British High Commission officials and given a small assistance package to pay for onward travel within Sri Lanka, those removed on regular flights have been left to fend for themselves. It is unclear how many people have been affected because forced returns on ordinary flights take place out of the media glare.

During a parliamentary debate about these issues on Wednesday, the Minister publicly acknowledged this discrepancy and told MPs that he had now asked his colleagues at the British High Commission in Sri Lanka to ensure the same reception package for all those being returned, including being met at the airport "where practicable", regardless of whether they are placed on ordinary or charter flights. The recent evidence from Human Rights Watch resoundingly proves that even these modest safeguards are woefully inadequate if the UK is to meet its international legal obligations not to return people to a real risk of torture.