Ukraine forcibly returns 11 Tamil asylum-seekers

The Ukrainian government forcibly returned 11 ethnic Tamil asylum-seekers to Sri Lanka this week. It is feared that their return to Sri Lanka will expose them to the risk of serious human rights violations including torture and ill treatment.

Amnesty International has strongly condemned Ukraine’s actions, which are a violation of international human rights and refugee law. The organization is also concerned that the asylum-seekers were not offered access to fair and efficient asylum procedures while in Ukraine.

All 11 asylum-seekers were registered with the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) in Kyiv between August 2007 and January 2008, and six of them had applied to the Ukrainian authorities for refugee status.

They were detained by the State Security Services (SBU) at the end of January and, according to the UNHCR, they were not offered interpretation or independent legal advice. On 27 February the six applications were rejected by the Khmelnitskiy migration services for procedural reasons. They were given no right to appeal.

On 29 February, the Vinnytsya Human Rights Group, a partner organization of the UNHCR in Ukraine, received a phone call from one of the asylum-seekers who said that they were being detained in a hotel in Shepetovka in the Khmelnitskiy region and that before that they were held in the basement of the police station.

He reported that they had been beaten and had not been given any food. He asked for help, saying that they were afraid of returning to Sri Lanka because they were Tamils. All requests by the UNHCR to the Ukrainian authorities to release the asylum-seekers and ensure that their claims were examined on individual merit were ignored.

The ongoing conflict between the government of Sri Lanka and the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) and other armed groups has escalated significantly since April 2006. It has been accompanied by large-scale violations of international humanitarian law by all sides, as well as serious and systematic human rights violations and abuses. These have included attacks targeting civilians, indiscriminate attacks, extrajudicial executions, enforced disappearances, torture and other ill-treatment. The vast majority of victims have been Tamils.

This is not the first time that Ukraine has ignored the rights of asylum-seekers. In March 2006 Amnesty International wrote to President Yushchenko expressing concern about the forcible return of 11 Uzbek asylum-seekers to Uzbekistan.

The organization sought assurances that in the future Ukraine would fully respect its obligations under international and national law concerning the rights of refugees and asylum-seekers and the prohibition of refoulement. No assurances were forthcoming.