The government has conceded that it is doing nothing to establish what is happening to scores of Tamils who are being forcibly removed from the UK despite concerns for their safety in Sri Lanka.
A flight chartered by the UK Border Agency was due to depart on Wednesday with up to 50 failed asylum applicants on board, 24 hours after several human rights groups warned that they could face detention without trial, torture or even death.
As lawyers for some of the individuals lodged last-minute appeals, the agency claimed that arrangements to monitor the welfare of the deportees had been sub-contracted to the International Organisation for Migration (IOM), an inter-governmental body.
When the IOM denied this, the agency conceded that the only measure being taken to ensure the safety of Tamils who are forcibly removed from the UK to Sri Lanka was to give them the telephone number and address of the British high commission in Colombo.
In a letter to Keith Best, head of Freedom from Torture, one of the NGOs expressing concern about the deportations, Rob Whiteman, chief executive of the UK Border Agency, said: “Individuals are provided with the contact details of the high commission in Colombo and may contact them if they require any assistance.”
Best had asked Damian Green, the immigration minister, to explain whether any arrangements were in place to monitor the safety of deportees.
The Foreign Office believes that the humanitarian and security situation has improved for both Tamils and the majority Sinhalese population since civil war ended in May 2009.
However, Freedom from Torture, Human Rights Watch and Amnesty International are all expressing concern about the safety of Tamils forced to return, saying there is evidence that they are continuing to suffer severe mistreatment or being “disappeared”.
There is also concern among human rights groups and immigration lawyers that the Border Agency is taking decisions on the basis of assurances given by Sri Lankan intelligence officers – the very people accused of perpetrating many of the alleged abuses.
In its latest report on the risks faced by Tamils imprisoned by the government, the Border Agency says it has relied in part on an assurance that the UK high commission in Colombo obtained from senior intelligence officials.
The report quotes an official at the mission as saying last May: “I asked the senior government intelligence officials if there was any truth in allegations that the Sri Lankan authorities were torturing suspects. They denied this was the case and added that many Sri Lankans who had claimed asylum abroad had inflicted wounds on themselves in order to create scars to support their stories.”
A number of Tamils who had been taken into detention in recent weeks after the failure of their asylum applications were told at the last moment on Wednesday that they would not be put on the flight due to depart that afternoon, as planned.
The Border Agency said it would not reveal details of the flight “for security reasons”.